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Can an illegal immigrant become a lawyer?

Denny Henry for msnbc.com

Jose Manuel Godinez-Samperio at Capitol Hill on April 19. He is an undocumented immigrant, brought to the U.S. from Mexico as a child, who is seeking his law license in Florida in what appears to be a landmark case.

 

Jose Manuel Godinez-Samperio was brought to the United States from Mexico by his parents when he was nine years old. Sixteen years later, he had graduated from his Florida high school as class valedictorian, become an Eagle Scout, completed college and law school, and passed the state bar exam.

But one big accomplishment eluded him: citizenship. Godinez-Samperio is in the country illegally, which could keep him from achieving another part of his American dream: becoming a lawyer.


In what appears to be a landmark case, the Florida Supreme Court is going to consider whether Godinez-Samperio has the right to practice the law -- a decision that could impact others who hope to follow in his footsteps.

“It makes me feel that we’re living in a … historical moment. I really think the last time something like this happened was when African Americans and women were admitted to the bar,” he told msnbc.com. “I think if we win this, it’ll be another historical civil rights mark.”

Godinez-Samperio is pressing his case as the national debate over illegal immigration heats up. On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments on the constitutionality of Arizona’s strict anti-illegal immigration law. And last week, Godinez-Samperio was in the nation’s capitol to lobby for the Dream Act, which would provide a path to legal status to some adults who came to America illegally as children. Supporters are making a renewed push for the legislation after it failed in the U.S. Senate in 2010. 

Some 11.5 million “unauthorized immigrants,” as the Department of Homeland Security calls them, lived in the United States as of January 2011. Of that, 6.8 million were from Mexico, like Godinez-Samperio, according to the department’s Office of Immigration Statistics.

Godinez-Samperio’s journey to the law began when he and his parents left their home in Pachuca, Mexico. They came on tourist visas, which they overstayed. He didn’t know English and it was a few years before he began to realize what his immigration status was and what it meant for his future.

He couldn’t get a social security number or a driver’s license, he didn’t have access to most financial aid, he couldn’t work for compensation and has been ineligible for most internships and awards, according to an essay he submitted for his law school application.

But he said he managed to get private scholarships to help pay for his education, and volunteered where he could -- such as helping domestic violence victims obtain immigration relief.

“For me, it’s very important to show that I have been a contributing member of society (the) entire time I have lived in this country,” he said. “ … there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be allowed to contribute even more  … with a green card.”

When Godinez-Samperio applied to take the bar exam last year, he sought a waiver because he didn’t have proof of his immigration status, which is required by the Florida Board of Bar Examiners who administer the test. States set their own requirements for those seeking to become a lawyer.

His request was granted. Godinez-Samperio took the bar exam in July and found out in September that he had passed. He was ecstatic, until he learned in November that the board was going to seek an advisory opinion from the state supreme court on whether undocumented immigrants are eligible for admission to the Florida Bar.

Denny Henry for msnbc.com

Cesar Vargas at Capitol Hill on April 19 to launch a Dream Act-related campaign. He is an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, brought to the U.S. as a child, who is pushing for immigration law reform.

“I had mixed feelings,” he said. “I knew that it was going to be an interesting trajectory that I was about to begin.”

That journey has included a number of filings from the board and his attorney, Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte, as well as a few friend-of-the-court submissions from groups supporting his application, including three past presidents of the American Bar Association.

“It’s the first time it’s ever been addressed in Florida, and I think it’s probably the first time it’s been before a supreme court anywhere in the country,” said Thomas Arthur Pobjecky, the board’s general counsel.

The board determined it was “a really serious matter” and decided to seek out the court’s guidance in these types of cases, which they expect to see more of in the future.

“If the law says you cannot employ -- or it’s against the law to employ -- somebody who is not legally in this country, then when we say … here is a license to practice law in this country, are they not also implying that you can hire this person and go ahead and pay him and everything else? So there is a concern,” Pobjecky said. “Once the Florida Supreme Court licenses somebody to be a lawyer, they’re putting their stamp of approval on that person.” 

But D’Alemberte questioned why the board would let his client sit the exam if they did not intend to give him a license.

“It just seems to us fundamentally unfair after he’s complied with every valid rule not to just go ahead and admit him to the bar and leave to the immigration service whether he is complying with immigration,” he said.

The possibility that undocumented immigrants could receive law licenses doesn’t sit well with some.

“I know what the policy ought to be, which is that … someone who doesn’t have the right to be in the United States shouldn’t be admitted to the bar, period,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank that supports tighter immigration controls.

“This is trying to steal a base. In other words, they’re trying to skip over the debate over whether people in his situation should get legalized,” he added. “It’s one more way of trying to create a de facto legalization.”

Cesar Vargas, an illegal immigrant from Mexico who has passed the bar exam and is in the process of applying for his law license in New York, has started a group, the Dream Bar Association, to advocate for people in his position. Membership numbers about two dozen, and includes those interested in going to law school to those who have passed the bar.

“We’re basically throwing the judicial branch into the immigration debate … through our cases,” he said.

In California, Sergio Garcia, 35, an illegal immigrant, has been awaiting a decision since he passed the bar exam in 2009. Because the admissions process is confidential, neither Garcia nor the bar could speak about his application, though a bar spokeswoman said the application for admission doesn't require citizenship.

Thomas Fitton, of conservative Washington watchdog Judicial Watch, said the idea of an undocumented immigrant working as a lawyer in the U.S. was “preposterous.”

“These are kind of, in some ways, public relations stunts, but you know, we’ll see what happens … the whole notion of it is at odds with the rule of law and undermines federal immigration law,” he said. “I think those who’ve passed the bar should focus on making themselves legal as opposed to bypassing the law.”

But others feel that admission should be done on a case-by-case basis, taking into account whether a specific applicant has met the moral character test of the application, said Stephen N. Zack, a former ABA president who has filed a brief in support of Godinez-Samperio.

“You can’t take one finite point and say that that is an absolute determination of a person’s character,” he said. “You have to look in a holistic way at the person’s life story and here, you have an exceptional person.”

He also noted that bar candidates like Godinez-Samperio could offer some unique services, with the nation heading to a “majority minority” status in the decades to come.

“We need people who can reach out and provide access to communities that … have historically not had access, and this is the kind of person that is ideal to provide that to the future generations,” he said.

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Godinez-Samperio, who would like to work in immigration law, continues to research his case and to work on promoting the Dream Act.

“This is a huge fight for me and for a lot of people,” he said.

Despite the challenges and the uncertainty, he doesn’t regret going public before a Florida legislative committee in April 2011 with his status, which few were aware of before.

“I decided to come out with my story because I’m undocumented, unapologetic and unafraid,” he said. “In telling the truth, I am risking my liberty, but that’s what a lawyer is about, is about telling the truth … so I’m being as honest as I can possibly get, even to the point of risking my liberty.”

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