The Maricopa County Community College District will appeal a court ruling that would prohibit students known as “dreamers” from receiving in-state college tuition rates.
In a close 4-3 vote, the governing board voted Tuesday evening to ask the Arizona Supreme Court to review the ruling by the Arizona Court of Appeals.
Board member Linda Thor told a room packed with students, several of whom drove from Tucson, that she would not be able to sleep if she didn’t take action to help them. Her father, she said, was an immigrant who came to the United States by himself when he was 17.
“I feel we have a moral and ethical responsibility to our students,” she said.
So many students filled the board’s meeting room that a second overflow room had to be opened. Many students wore T-shirts with words supporting efforts to keep lower, in-state tuition rates for young undocumented immigrants who were brought to U.S. as children.
“It’s a blessing, a blessing. It’s just another sign of hope. This buys us time,” said Luis Avila, who is majoring in landscape architecture at Arizona State University and has one more year left to finish his degree.
Not all members agreed with the board’s decision to appeal.
Board member Tracy Livingston said she was sympathetic to the students but wasn’t going to oppose a law enacted by Arizona voters several years ago that bars public colleges and universities from giving dreamers the lower in-state rates.
“We not only represent you,” she told the students. “We represent the citizens of the state as taxpayers.”
The board’s decision on Tuesday was being watched by officials at the three state universities and by other community colleges around Arizona.
Maricopa Community Colleges were sued in 2013 by the state after college officials allowed dreamers with work permits to pay in-state tuition rates, which are much lower than non-resident rates.
A Maricopa County Superior Court judge sided with the district in 2015, saying such dreamers were considered legally present in the United States and therefore qualify for state benefits.
Last week, however, the state appellate court overturned the lower-court judge.
Presiding Judge Kenton Jones wrote that the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, signed into law by former President Barack Obama, did not confer legal status on dreamers. He said federal immigration law allows each state to decide on optional benefits for DACA recipients, and Arizona law bars in-state tuition.
About 2,000 DACA recipients attend Maricopa Community Colleges under the lower in-state tuition rate of $86 per credit hour vs. $241 for non-residents.
Karina Ruiz, board president of the Arizona Dream Act Coalition, a group that advocates for dreamers, predicted that many DACA students will be forced to drop out of college if they have to pay higher out-of-state tuition rates.
Ruiz graduated from ASU in 2015 with a degree in biochemistry. She had to pay out-of-state tuition and said it took 12 years to graduate because she could only take one class at a time.
“Exactly the nightmare that I lived — not being able to go to school and move on with my life — is what is going to happen to other students if this does not get reverted. It’s impossible to afford three times the tuition. There aren’t a lot of scholarships out there. I know a lot of dreamers who are working to afford their tuition, and this is going to make it impossible for them.”
Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, who appealed the 2015 ruling, said last week more than 70 percent of Arizona voters approved Proposition 300, the 2006 law prohibiting in-state tuition rates to students without legal status.
“I am sympathetic to all young adults looking to improve their lives, but as attorney general my job is to defend the law and not second-guess the will of Arizona voters,” he said in a statement.
The issue of dreamers and tuition has been a controversial one in Arizona.
By approving Proposition 300 in 2006, Arizonans voted to deny in-state tuition rates to students without legal status.
In 2012, Obama created a policy that allows young people without serious criminal records who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children to apply for deportation deferments and work permits. Department of Homeland Security officials have emphasized that work permits granted to people approved for DACA bestow legal presence, but not legal status.
Maricopa Community Colleges took the position that dreamers with work permits were eligible for in-state tuition. Then-state Attorney General Tom Horne sued the colleges in 2013, arguing that the college district violated the state law enacted by voters.
Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Arthur Anderson ruled on that lawsuit in May 2015, saying Arizona law doesn’t bar benefits to immigrants lawfully in the country.
Under federal law, the DACA students are lawfully present, he wrote.
“Federal law, not state law, determines who is lawfully present in the U.S. … The circumstance under which a person enters the U.S. does not determine that person’s lawful presence here,” Anderson wrote.
That ruling prompted the Arizona Board of Regents, who oversee the state universities, to begin offering in-state tuition to dreamers in 2015.
Regents President Eileen Klein said if the appeals court ruling stands, Klein said DACA students may be eligible for a non-resident tuition rate for Arizona high-school graduates. That rate would be 150 percent of undergraduate in-state tuition.
Another group is also monitoring the decision of Maricopa Community Colleges.
The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a civil-rights organization, intervened in the lawsuit in 2013. The group defended the decision to allow students with DACA to pay in-state tuition, arguing they were no different than other people with deportation deferments allowed to pay in-state tuition in the past.
Victor Viramontes, national senior counsel at the MALDEF, said the organization also may file an appeal with the Arizona Supreme Court.
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