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Updated Jun 26, 2013 - 6:40 pm

Arizona sues community colleges in tuition fight

PHOENIX — Arizona filed a lawsuit Tuesday to block one of the nation’s
largest community college systems from providing reduced tuition to young
immigrants granted deferred deportation by the Obama administration.

The lawsuit underscores Arizona’s tough stance on illegal immigration and marks
its latest legal challenge to the federal program that has allowed more than
365,000 immigrants nationwide to avoid deportation since it was unveiled by
President Barack Obama a year ago.

Arizona officials argue that extending reduced tuition to those youths violates
state law, which prohibits any immigrant without legal status from receiving
public benefits. Attorney General Tom Horne’s office had been threatening to sue
the school system over its tuition policy for months.

Officials from the school district had directed Horne in April to seek clarity
from a judge on the state law to avoid conflicting interpretations. They said
the students are legal immigrants and should receive reduced tuition.

“We feel that it’s too bad that he felt the need to do this and spend public
funds, actually, it’s double public funds since we are a public entity and so
are they,” said Tom Gariepy, the school district’s spokesman. “We still think
that our policy will be upheld and that the judge will see things our way.”

Arizona law doesn’t define what constitutes a legal resident. It does, however,
list a work visa as sufficient evidence of legal status. Young people in the
Obama administration’s deferred deportation program are eligible for work visas,
but Gov. Jan Brewer has said they are not lawful residents under state law.

The Maricopa County Community College District adopted its in-state tuition
policy in September. It has roughly 230,000 students. Immigrants must prove that
they live in the state and have legal status to receive in-state tuition.

“From our point of view, we didn’t change our policy because what we were
doing all along was accepting federal work permits,” Gariepy said. “Our point
has been that we don’t feel we should have to discriminate among the people who
present us those permits.”

The state is also caught in a legal battle over driver’s licenses for youths in
the program. Civil rights activists argue that immigrants with work visas
already receive driver’s licenses under Arizona law, and youths in the deferred
deportation program should not be treated differently under the U.S.
Constitution’s equal protection clause.

Under the Obama policy, eligible immigrants must be younger than 30 and must
have come to the U.S. before they turned 16. Roughly 80,000 immigrants in
Arizona are eligible, according to state estimates.

Maricopa officials are among a growing number of higher education leaders who
say that students who attend local high schools should later be able to pay
in-state or reduced tuition if they participate in the Obama administration
program.

Pima Community College in Tucson also recently opted to offer in-state tuition
for these students. The change reduces the annual cost for full-time enrollment
from more than $9,000 to about $2,000.

Meanwhile, the Arizona Board of Regents, which oversees the state’s public
universities, recently directed its legal staff to find a way to lower tuition
rates for these students without violating state law. Board members sent a
letter in support of higher education reform for immigrants Wednesday to Arizona
Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, part of the so-called Gang of Eight, a
bipartisan group of lawmakers that has introduced a bill in the U.S. Senate that
would extend legal rights to millions of immigrants.

“With Arizona at the forefront of the immigration reform debate, we routinely
hear from hard-working, high-achieving undocumented students who have been
brought to Arizona at a young age and have advanced through our K-12 system only
to have their ability to further their education and contribute positively to
our economy and society hindered by state and federal immigration laws,” the
letter read.

At least 13 states allow students who have lived in the country for many years
without legal status to pay in-state tuition.

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