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.
An illegal immigrant seeking admission to the Florida bar has met its requirements to become a lawyer, the bar said in a filing this week to the Florida Supreme Court in a case being watched closely by both sides of the immigration debate.
Jose Godinez-Samperio is one of a few illegal immigrants in different states trying to get law licenses after passing the local bar’s two-pronged test: an exam and a moral character review.
Godinez-Samperio passed the exam portion of the test last year, and he was notified recently that nothing in his background would be considered “disqualifying” for the character portion. That notice was cited Monday in legal correspondence posted on the Florida court’s website.
Now, it’s up to the state’s supreme court to decide whether his immigration status is enough to keep him from being admitted to the bar.
“I think what the board has said is … there’s nothing that we’re aware of at this point that we would see as an impediment from a character and fitness standpoint,” Bob Blythe, general counsel for the Florida Board of Bar Examiners, told NBC News. “It’s not really a recommendation because we’re waiting to hear from the court.”
Godinez-Samperio came to the U.S. as a 9 year old with his parents from Pachuca, Mexico. They entered the country on tourist visas, which they overstayed. During that time, Godinez-Samperio graduated from high school, college and law school.
A case similar to his in California has reached that state’s supreme court, too. There, the State Bar of California has gone further than its Florida counterpart in saying that Sergio Garcia, a 35 year old who was born in Mexico and first came to the U.S. as a child, should get a license, noting he had met the rules of admission and that his lack of legal status in the U.S. should not automatically disqualify him.
Garcia's father is a naturalized citizen, according to the bar, and he has been waiting 18 years for a visa that would give him legal permanent residency. His application for a law license is being weighed by the court because his case is unprecedented in the state, as is the one in Florida.
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Many briefs in support of both men’s cases have been filed, but the federal government weighed in last week on the Garcia application and said it does not believe he should get a license.
In that brief, Acting Assistant Attorney General Stuart Delery of the Justice Department's Civil Division said Congress has made certain illegal immigrants ineligible for federal and state public benefits, including any professional or commercial licenses provided by a federal/state agency or local government, or by funds appropriated to these institutions.
“These provisions were plainly designed to preclude undocumented aliens from receiving commercial and professional licenses issued by States and the federal government. Their sweeping language demonstrates that Congress intended to act comprehensively in prohibiting receipt of such benefits by undocumented aliens, and they should be construed in a manner that furthers that evident purpose,” according to the brief.
The government also told the court that "enforcement of the federal provisions governing employment" by those without legal permission to be in the country was a responsibility of the federal government, and was not the "proper subject" of state court proceedings.
Some 11.5 million “unauthorized immigrants,” as the Department of Homeland Security calls illegal immigrants, lived in the United States as of January 2011, according to the department’s Office of Immigration Statistics.
President Barack Obama announced in June that some of the immigrants who came to the country as children would be able to get two-year work permits. That would not apply to Garcia, who is over the age limit of 30, but Godinez-Samperio’s lawyer said recently this should be taken into consideration in the 26-year-old’s application.
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