DAVID GREENE, HOST:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And I'm Steve Inskeep. We're about to tell you what sounds like a typical American success story. A boy becomes an academic standout, an Eagle Scout and high school valedictorian. Later, he attends college, and then law school, on full scholarships. What makes the case unusual is that the young man is an undocumented immigrant from Mexico and he's now fighting to be admitted to the Florida bar. From Miami, NPR's Greg Allen reports.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Jose Godinez-Samperio was just 9 years old when he came to the U.S. with his parents, from Mexico. They entered the country legally, but overstayed their visas and settled in the Tampa area. Although they didn't have legal papers, Godinez-Samperio says his parents soon found work. And he began attending school.
JOSE GODINEZ-SAMPERIO: After the first year or so, I was doing pretty well. And I got put into advanced classes very quickly. By the time I was in middle school, I was already in honors classes.
ALLEN: In high school, he excelled in his advanced placement classes, but then he began considering what would come next.
GODINEZ-SAMPERIO: It started to hit me, oh wait, but I might not be able to go to college as easily as I thought. Things were just now starting to hit me, so that played a big role in me thinking about what I needed to.
ALLEN: That was when Godinez-Samperio said he decided to become a lawyer. He attended New College of Florida and Florida State University's Law School, on privately funded scholarships. Because he is an undocumented immigrant, he wasn't able to apply for financial aid. It was at Florida State that he began to study under one of the state's most distinguished law professors. Talbot Sandy D'Alemberte is the university's former president; also, past president of the American Bar Association.
D'Alemberte says through high school, college and law school, Godinez-Samperio overcame many obstacles, but he was always honest. He never misrepresented his undocumented status.
TALBOT D'ALEMBERTE: Isn't that the kind of person we want to be a citizen? And isn't that the kind of person we want to be a lawyer? I mean, I'm very lucky in having a client who is really, such a fine young man.
ALLEN: D'Alemberte is now representing Godinez-Samperio in a case before Florida's Supreme Court. Godinez-Samperio, now 25, received a waiver from the state Board of Bar Examiners to take the test, and passed. After several months of consideration, though, the board declined to admit him to the bar; instead, referring the case to the state Supreme Court. The Florida Board of Bar Examiners has a policy, adopted several years ago, that requires applicants to have valid citizenship or immigration papers.
D'Alemberte argues that it's the Supreme Court, not the Board of Bar Examiners, that determines who qualifies for the bar in Florida; and the court has never issued a rule on the issue.
D'ALEMBERTE: He's complied with all the valid rules. He should, simply, be admitted. And if the court decides to adopt a rule, they ought not to apply it retrospectively against Jose.
ALLEN: Several organizations and individuals have filed briefs supporting Godinez-Samperio's bid to be admitted to the bar. Among them are three former presidents of the American Bar Association. So far, no briefs have been filed by outside groups opposing Godinez-Samperio's request. That doesn't mean anti-illegal immigration activists aren't speaking out. William Gheen is with Americans for Legal Immigration. He sees the challenge to Florida's bar admission requirements as part of a larger movement.
WILLIAM GHEEN: Illegal immigrants are in Americans' faces all over the place - saying, I'm going to do this and I'm going to do that, and you're not going to stop me. And that's what this guy is doing. He's just the latest - much like the Dream Act amnesty kids that are in the streets, blocking traffic.
ALLEN: Godinez-Samperio supports the Dream Act, and says he decided while still in high school to become a lawyer so he could work to change the country's immigration policies. But he says when he began his quest to pass the bar, he never expected to become a test case.
GODINEZ-SAMPERIO: But now that it happened, I'm actually very glad because I know that this case will impact a lot of people. They say bad cases make bad law. And I think I have a very good case, so I hope it will make good law.
ALLEN: While Godinez-Samperio is seeking to be admitted to the bar in Florida, elsewhere in the country, two other Mexican immigrants are pursuing similar cases - one in New York, and one in California.
ALLEN: Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.