Jose Manuel Godinez-Samperio, 26

Paperless; Jose Godinez-Samperio, by a mural reminiscent of his Mexican home town, waits to hear if the Florida Supreme Court will allow undocumented immigrants to become lawyers. Photo: Edward Linsmier

On Monday night at dusk in Clearwater, Florida, Jose Godinez-Samperio stopped and waited a full minute on a deserted street for the lights to change before he stepped onto the pedestrian crossing.

It is not just that Godinez-Samperio is law-abiding by nature - he is - but he has the ingrained habits of an undocumented immigrant. Like millions in similar circumstances, he knows any brush with authority can lead to imprisonment and deportation.

Though this experience is common in the US, Godinez-Samperio nevertheless is a remarkable young man.

In 1995, at age nine, Godinez-Samperio arrived from Mexico with his family on a tourist visa. Within a year or two, he had learnt English and begun topping some of his classes. He graduated from high school as valedictorian in 2004.

It had been hard to keep his secret. He remembers tying himself in knots explaining to friends why he did not get his driver's licence. For his grades, charity work and extra-curricular activities, he won a McDonald's scholarship that would have paid for up to four years of college, but when it came to signing the papers he lacked the required Florida ID.

His parents, who had given up professional careers in Mexico for field and factory work in the US, helped him through.

When he finished an anthropology degree, he found a law school that would take him without papers and, when he completed that, he sat the Florida bar exam, after a course he paid for in kind by doing administrative work. Even so, his law school classmates did not know he was undocumented until he testified before a Florida House of Representatives committee last year.

Florida was debating the introduction of an Arizona-style law that would compel its police to check the papers of anyone they came across in the course of their duties who they had reason to believe might be ''illegal'' and to detain and deport them if so.

It was one of many similar laws that spread across the nation in the wake of September 11, 2001.

Godinez-Samperio, by now a member of the community group United We Dream, part of a national movement of young undocumented immigrant activists, decided to speak out.

He stood at the witness table in a committee room in Florida's Capitol building in Tallahassee and told the hearing: ''I am Jose Manuel Godinez-Samperio. I am undocumented, unapologetic and unafraid, and I am a third-year law student at Florida State University College of Law.''

The committee members looked a little shocked, Godinez-Samperio recalls. But, behind them, a couple of their staffers, law school classmates, were stunned blank. ''It is not the sort of situation they teach you to have an expression for,'' he says.

With the support of law school professors, Godinez-Samperio applied to the Florida board of bar examiners for a recommendation to allow him to practise.

Never having faced such a situation, the board has asked the state's Supreme Court to decide whether an undocumented immigrant can be allowed to practise law. A Florida congresswoman, Kathy Castor, has filed a brief in support.

That decision is pending.

When told of Godinez-Samperio's plight, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, of Maricopa County, Arizona, does not hesitate with his verdict.

''If he has been here since he was nine, why has the law not caught up with him?'' he asks. ''I have compassion but he should be taken back to his own country and then come here legally.''

Arpaio, who is running for re-election this year even though he is 80, has worked hard on his tough reputation since he first won the position in 1992.

He reintroduced chain gangs, then added chain gangs for women. He housed his prisoners in a desert tent city and clothed them in pink underwear, the better to shame them. He boasted to the media of each innovation and remains happy to be interviewed though he faces multiple lawsuits for alleged infringements of civil rights.

These stem from his department's enthusiastic enforcement of Arizona's harsh anti-immigration laws.

Arpaio - who attracted attention for dispatching a sheriff's posse to Hawaii to investigate Barack Obama's birth certificate - believes the White House is pandering to a pro-immigration lobby by leaning on him.

While Arpaio's brand of populist politics has proved successful for him in Arizona, and for hundreds of other mainly Republican public figures in county, state and federal elections, Republican strategists fear it will soon condemn the party to permanent minority.

Between 2000 and 2010, Hispanic numbers rose 43 per cent to 50.5 million, more than 16 per cent of the population, including 3.7 million in Puerto Rico, a US territory. By 2050, it is estimated there will be 132.8 million Hispanics, about 30 per cent of the population.

Ronald Reagan is said to have coined the phrase, ''Latinos are Republicans, they just don't know it yet.'' He was referring to the significance of family, religion and small business among many Hispanics.

Leslie Sanchez, a Republican strategist, writes in her book Los Republicanos: Why Hispanics and Republicans Need Each Other, that Republicans can and should start winning majorities of Hispanic votes that have traditionally gone to the Democrats, ''if they effectively reach out and avoid insulting Hispanic voters with anti-immigrant diatribes''.

This election year has been rich in such diatribes. During the primaries, the former candidates Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain called for the Mexican border to be fortified (Bachmann proposed a double wall; Cain opted for electrification).

During a debate, Rick Santorum said his rival candidate Rick Perry had ''provided in-state tuition for illegal immigrants. Maybe that was an attempt to attract the illegal vote - I mean, the Latino voters.''

The presumed candidate, Mitt Romney, outlined a vision of immigration rules enforced so tightly that undocumented immigrants would be unable to find work and would choose to leave the country voluntarily.

''I call that - or other people call that - self-deportation,'' he explained.

Godinez-Samperio is jaded with both parties.

''[This] is an immigrant country, it always accepts immigrants, but it always accepts them with a stick,'' he says.

He is shocked that people cannot see parallels between the way recent Hispanic immigrants are treated and the way earlier waves of European immigrants were received.

Like an estimated 1.7 million other young undocumented immigrants, Godinez-Samperio spent much of this week filling out his application for a new form of work permit that became available on Wednesday.

Obama introduced the program by executive order after Republicans blocked the Dream Act, a reform that would have provided a ''pathway to citizenship'' for young undocumented immigrants who were brought into the US as children.

It is a start, but not enough, Godinez-Samperio says.

Should his permit be granted, he would enjoy some medium-term security, but no green card, and his parents would be left in the shadows.