PHOENIX — Efforts to allow some immigrants without legal status to pay
lower tuition rates have pitted Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne against
higher education leaders and raised questions about whether the state’s refusal
to grant public benefits to young immigrants granted deferred deportation by the
Obama administration is legal.
Officials from the Maricopa County Community College District said Wednesday
that a judge should review Arizona’s law to avoid conflicting interpretations.
Horne has threatened to sue the district over its recent policy allowing young
immigrants participating in the Obama administration program to pay in-state
“We believe that MCCCD’s policy continues to comply with state and federal
law. Nonetheless, we agree that there is uncertainty about the state statutes,”
school officials wrote in a letter to Horne on Wednesday.
Under state law, immigrants without lawful status do not qualify for public
benefits, including in-state tuition rates. But the 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 program are eligible for work
visas, but Gov. Jan Brewer has said they are not lawful residents under state
The state’s dismissal of the federal deferred action program is already up for
legal review. Lawyers demanding driver’s licenses for youths in the program have
raised similar challenges to the state’s policy.
For now, neither side is backing down.
The Maricopa college district’s executive board decided Tuesday to uphold its
in-state tuition policy despite Horne’s warnings. Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for
Horne said Wednesday that he has not made a decision to legally challenge the
district’s policy at this time, but could take action as soon as Thursday.
Maricopa officials are among a growing number of higher education leaders
statewide who say students who attend Arizona high schools should later be able
to pay in-state or reduced tuition if they participate in the Obama
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. A school spokesman said Wednesday that
Horne had not raised legal concerns about the policy.
More recently, the Arizona Board of Regents directed its legal staff to find a
way to lower tuition rates for these students without violating state law. A
proposal is expected in June. The regents have not reached out to Horne’s office
for legal guidelines, spokeswoman Sarah Harper said.
“They would definitely be making sure that any options would be within the
perimeters of the law,” Harper said.
Immigrants protected under the Obama policy unveiled in June 2012 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.
The Maricopa County Community College District adopted its in-state tuition
program in September.
“We feel pretty confident that our interpretation of the law is correct,”
district spokesman Tom Gariepy said in a phone interview Wednesday.
At least 13 states allow immigrants who have lived in the country for many
years without legal status to pay in-state tuition.