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Young Adults Learn To Surf Florida’s Changing Political Tides

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

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

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TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – Getting bills passed is an art and a science, the reason people pay lobbyists millions of dollars. But for some young Floridians, the 2014 session was a breakthrough in succeeding in the legislative arena.

After more than a decade of trying, students watched as lawmakers passed a bill (HB 851) granting in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants who have attended Florida secondary schools for at least three years. Gov. Rick Scott has promised to sign the measure.

“It took a lot of courage to do what they did,” said House Speaker Will Weatherford, a Wesley Chapel Republican whose support powered the bill to passage. “They’re the face of what we were trying to articulate.”

Wearing orange mortarboards and brandishing their high-school diplomas, the students repeated their stories of hard work and good grades, their dreams of higher education colliding with the cost of out-of-state tuition. When HB 851 stalled in the Senate, they held a sit-in outside Senate President Don Gaetz’s office, calling on him to allow a floor vote. He did.

Lawmakers also passed a bill (HB 755) allowing Jose Godinez-Samperio, an undocumented immigrant with a law degree, to be admitted to The Florida Bar. Scott signed the measure on Monday.

But Godinez-Samperio, who got his start in legislative advocacy working on the first in-state tuition bill in 2003, has no illusions about the reason for its hard-won success.

“The 2012 election, really, is when our message started getting heard,” he said.

Godinez-Samperio is an example of a so-called “Dreamer,” an undocumented immigrant brought to the United States as a child. He was 9 when his parents brought the family from Mexico and remained after their visas expired, which meant they were here illegally. Godinez-Samperio became an Eagle Scout, was valedictorian of his high school class, graduated from New College and attended law school at Florida State University before passing the Bar exam. But he was blocked from admission to The Bar because he was not a U.S. citizen.

As a high school student, Godinez-Samperio worked on the first version of the in-state tuition bill with former Rep. Juan Zapata, a Miami-Dade County Republican who was the sponsor. He has stayed with the measure ever since and recalls 2010 as a considerably more difficult political climate than 2014.

“The (changing) political tides were the result of how the Dreamers presented themselves,” he said. “I don’t think it would have happened if we hadn’t done all that work for the past 10 years.”

The session also held disappointments for young activists. Members of the Dream Defenders, known for their 31-day sit-in outside Scott’s office last summer, saw little progress on their key issues of repealing Florida’s “stand your ground” self-defense law and ending zero-tolerance policies in public schools, both of which, they say, target minority students.

“We were constantly having to fight not only to be seen but to be heard,” acknowledged Ciara Taylor, political director of the Dream Defenders.

Members of the Dream Defenders have a more adversarial relationship with state leaders than some other youth groups. They marched to the Capitol after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teen.

Meanwhile, Florida Youth Shine, an advocacy group for young people who have been in foster care, convinced lawmakers to help teens in foster care learn to drive. It was just a year after the Legislature passed two groundbreaking foster-care bills, the so-called “normalcy bill” giving foster families more of a right to make decisions for their foster children, and a measure giving kids in care the option of staying until age 21.

“They can get in places I can’t,” said Christina Spudeas, executive director of Florida’s Children First and adviser to Youth Shine. “It really helps the legislators to see from the child’s perspective how it affects them.”

But like the Dreamers, the members of Florida Youth Shine haven’t always been as welcome at the Capitol. Spudeas said they learned not to focus on their hard-luck pasts.

“That message wasn’t as well received as, ‘We want to succeed and we want to give back,’ ” Spudeas said. “And they got it.”

Since the group started coming to Tallahassee in 2007, Spudeas said, it has grown from about 30 members to 250 statewide.

This year, 43 members spent Children’s Week at the Capitol lobbying more than 60 legislators. They backed a provision in the child welfare bill (SB 1666) that would keep siblings together in foster care whenever possible. Lawmakers heard from kids who hadn’t seen their brothers and sisters in years.

Sen. Denise Grimsley, a Sebring Republican and a longtime ally of Youth Shine, said the legislative process is more accessible now, not just for young people but for everyone, because technology and transparency have improved in the last 30 or 40 years.

“Technology has given younger people the ability to access, digest and react to policymaking quickly and inexpensively,” Grimsley said. “Youth Shine is …a perfect example of mobilization. Youth Shine is their attempt to put a face on their situations, and they have found great success in a relatively brief period of time.”

This report is by Margie Menzel with The News Service of Florida.

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