LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — José Manuel Godínez-Samperio can’t vote in the November election. But Godínez-Samperio, along with and tens of thousands of other young undocumented immigrants are indelibly influencing the 2012 presidential race.
These so-called “dreamers,” who came to the U.S. before age 16, entering the country illegally alongside their parents or as tourists, grew up as Americans and are now at the center of a high-stakes policy debate over deportations, jobs and citizenship.
Its tone and substance is particularly resonant with Latino voters in several key swing states, including Florida.
“It shows the influence that ‘dreamers’ have in this country. We’ve come a long way in the past 10 years since we’ve been fighting for the DREAM Act. It shows that people can’t ignore us anymore,” said Godínez-Samperio, 25, a Mexican by birth who came to the U.S. with his parents as a fourth grader.
“Both presidential candidates are paying us attention, and in part that has been thanks to Sen. Marco Rubio who helped open the political space by making his proposal,” he said in an interview with ABC News on the sidelines of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials conference here.
Rubio, a Republican from Florida who is under consideration as a potential running mate for GOP nominee Mitt Romney, had recently drafted new legislation to provide relief for young immigrants like Godinez-Samperi0, who live under threat of deportation. He was ultimately preempted by President Obama, who last week used executive authority to temporarily suspend removals and grant work permits to qualified youth.
“It will certainly help in the election for Obama,” said Godínez-Samperio, who was skeptical the shift would yield immediate, personal benefits while acknowledging it as a step forward.
“The discourse is changing. People are talking about it differently,” he said. “Presidential candidate Romney before was talking about how we should all self-deport and he would veto the Dream Act. But now his position is less clear. So the fact that we have been able to change the discourse in this country is a huge step forward.”
Romney has said he would replace Obama’s temporary measure with a permanent solution, but has not fully outlined what that would be. He has previously said he would veto the DREAM Act, a piece of bipartisan legislation first introduced in 2001 that would grant legal status to illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. before age 16, have clean criminal records, graduated high school and attend college or join the military. It has failed to pass Congress on several tries, most recently in 2010.
How will the candidates’ position on the DREAM Act play with Latino voters in Florida?
“It makes a huge difference because there are a lot of people that are voting for me, especially in this state,” Godínez-Samperio said.
Public opinion polls show a majority of Americans support the DREAM Act provisions, with the strongest backing coming from Latino voters from across the political spectrum.
“I’ve been living in this country the majority of my life. I haven’t committed any crimes. I haven’t been arrested for anything. I’ve never been in trouble. All I’m asking is a chance to contribute to this society,” said Godínez-Samperio. He graduated from a Florida high school as valedictorian in 2004 and later earned a law degree from Florida State University College of Law.
Godínez-Samperio passed the Florida bar exam on his first try but was denied a license by the Florida Board of Examiners because of his legal status, he said. He is now asking the Florida Supreme Court to review his case.
“I’m in the same boat as Senator Marco Rubio,” he said. “He graduated from law school just like I did. He passed the bar exam just like I did. And if I were in his position, if I were to get the benefits he got because he’s Cuban I would very gladly strive to do as much public service as he did.”