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Lawmakers Reach Out To Undocumented Immigrants

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Florida Capitol Complex (Source: dms.myflorida.com)

Florida Capitol Complex (Source: dms.myflorida.com)

Politics

TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – Immediately after the Senate passed HB 755 late Friday afternoon, Senate Rules Chairman John Thrasher left the chamber, dashed up the stairs and handed a sheet of paper to a small cluster of people outside the public gallery.

It was a vote sheet signed by Thrasher, a St. Augustine Republican, and Sen. Darren Soto, an Orlando Democrat, two lawmakers who were instrumental in the passage of the bill that will allow Jose Godinez-Samperio, an undocumented immigrant, to become a Florida lawyer.

The bill was one of two that lawmakers approved on the final day of the session that opened doors for “Dreamers,” undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children. The other measure, a priority of House Speaker Will Weatherford, would allow undocumented students to pay cheaper, in-state tuition rates at colleges and universities if they attend three years of secondary schooling in Florida.

On the fifth floor, Thrasher hugged Sandy D’Alemberte, a former president of the American Bar Association and former dean of the Florida State University law school who represented Godinez-Samperio before the Florida Supreme Court and pushed the Legislature to pass the bill.

“I’m sorry it took so long,” Thrasher said to D’Alemberte, who was flanked by his wife, Patsy Palmer, and attorney Steve Uhlfelder — the team members who, along with Godinez-Samperio, walked the halls and whipped the votes for Friday’s victory.

The measure is now on its way to Gov. Rick Scott, who said Thursday night he will sign it. Scott made his remarks during a hastily called press conference at which he praised the Senate for approving the in-state tuition measure (HB 851). The House gave final approval to the tuition bill Friday morning.

Godinez-Samperio’s parents brought him to the country from Mexico when he was 9 years old. He later became an Eagle Scout, valedictorian of his high school class, graduated from FSU law school with honors and passed the Bar exam. But, because he is not a U.S. citizen, the Florida Supreme Court decided he cannot be admitted to The Florida Bar. In an emotionally charged opinion penned by Cuban-born Justice Jorge Labarga, the court asked the Legislature to allow the court to change its rules to make it possible for Godinez-Samperio and other “Dreamers” to become eligible to practice law in Florida.

Under the bill on its way to Scott, people who were brought to the country as children, have been residents of the United States for more than a decade, have received documented employment authorization from federal immigration officials, have been issued Social Security cards and, if they are men, have registered with the Selective Service System would be eligible to apply for The Bar. After Scott signs the measure and it becomes law, the Supreme Court could allow Godinez-Samperio, who wants to practice immigration law, to become an attorney.

Posing for a photograph while clutching the 26-7 vote sheet in his hand Friday evening, Godinez-Samperio said Friday evening he “thought this was going to be a disaster” when he and his team first started lobbying the Legislature to change the law.

“I’m ecstatic,” he said. “It’s a dream come true. It’s a great day for Florida.”

The House passed the measure granting in-state tuition rates to undocumented students early in the session. But a Senate version — sponsored by Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican locked in a battle with Senate budget chief Joe Negron over a future Senate presidency — was stalled until this week after Negron, R-Stuart, refused to schedule it for a committee hearing.

On Thursday, the Senate made a slight change to the proposal, which also includes a provision dealing with universities’ ability to hike tuition up to 15 percent per year without the Legislature’s approval. Scott had wanted to eliminate the “differential” tuition hikes altogether. Under the compromise on its way to the governor, only the University of Florida and Florida State University would be able to seek such increases, which would be capped at 6 percent.

The House signed off on the measure Friday morning with an 84-32 vote, with Democrats lending enough support to the bill to ensure its passage.

“I hope that this signals an end to the anti-immigrant extremism that has reigned in both of these houses for over a decade,” said Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami.

Republicans had been split on the issue despite encouragement from Scott, former Govs. Jeb Bush and Bob Martinez and national GOP leaders eager for their party to embrace Hispanics, a critical voting bloc.

Critics have accused Scott, who pledged to bring an Arizona-style law to Florida in his first campaign for governor, of an election-year turnaround on the issue of immigration. Scott, as he has repeatedly in the past, used the tuition issue to blast Democratic challenger Charlie Crist, a former governor.

“The Florida Legislature embraced fairness for all students today by taking action to lower the costs of higher education for every family in Florida. Students who have spent their childhood here in Florida deserve to qualify for the same in-state tuition,” Scott said in a statement. “We are trying to right the wrongs of the previous administration that raised the price of a college education and opposed providing in-state tuition for children of immigrants. The Legislature did the right thing, and I look forward to signing this historic legislation.”

This report is by Dara Kam with The News Service of Florida.

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