Tuition bill covering dreamers approved by Senate

Arizona State University's downtown Phoenix campus. Photo by Michael Ruiz | Flickr

The state Senate on Wednesday approved a bill to offer a special tuition rate to all graduates of Arizona high schools that will cover immigrants known as dreamers.

Sen. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, sponsored Senate Bill 1217 so any Arizona high school graduate is entitled to a new tuition rate at universities and community colleges. The bill makes no mention of immigration status, but exempts postsecondary education from the definition of a state or local public benefit – which those without lawful immigration status can’t access under a law Arizona voters approved in 2006.

Dreamers, or recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, have for years pushed for in-state tuition at the state’s public higher education institutions. Their plight failed in the courts because in-state tuition isn’t available to those without lawful immigration status. A state voter-approved law denies those without lawful immigration status access to state benefits, including in-state student status and financial assistance for public colleges and universities.

“This is not in-state tuition,” Carter told reporters after the bill passed in the Senate. “What we’re doing is building a new path for students to pursue their academic dreams. I want kids to go to college in Arizona.”

Carter’s legislation doesn’t say what the new tuition would be in relation to in-state or out-of-state rates. The Arizona Board of Regents and the community colleges would set that amount.  

The bill passed on a 18-12 vote.

Sen. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, voted against the bill and said the proposal is unconstitutional because it violates 2006’s Proposition 300, which was approved by 71 percent of voters.  

He said while Prop. 300 specifically dealt with in-state tuition, it was intended to deny undocumented immigrants from tuition lower than the out-of-state rate.

“They used in-state tuition as the standard, but it was certainly contemplating whether somebody who was in the country illegally should be paying less than out-of-state tuition,” Farnsworth said.

Carter’s bill cleared Monday the Rules Committee, which reviews the constitutionality of legislation. A staff lawyer said Prop. 300 measure deals with in-state tuition rates only, while Carter’s bill creates a separate tuition rate.

Reyna Montoya watched the vote on Carter’s bill from the Senate gallery Wednesday. Montoya  has DACA and is founder of Aliento, a community group that works with undocumented youth. She said the bill is good for dreamers and for Arizona high school graduates who had to delay their higher education goals.

“We are really excited, because I think it’s the first step to allow a lot of Arizona high school graduates to have easier access to higher education. It will really help us as a state, as well,” Montoya said.

Several business groups, the community colleges and the Arizona Board of Regents back Carter’s bill.

Who it covers

Under Carter’s bill, students who graduate an Arizona high school (or were homeschooled according to state standards) are eligible for the new tuition rate as long as they meet the institution’s academic requirements.

The proposal isn’t tied to residency. If a state high school graduate moves out of Arizona, they would still be eligible for the new rate as long as they were enrolled in school in the past year.  

There is already a special tuition rate for dreamers at the state university level. In 2015, the Arizona Board of Regents, the governing body for the state’s three public universities, created a special rate for DACA recipients that is 50-percent higher than in-state tuition.

Because only certain immigrant youth without status can apply for DACA, Carter’s bill would be broader and cover other immigrant students.

Arizona is one of six states that prohibit in-state tuition eligibility to undocumented youth, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Laura Gómez
Reporter Laura Gómez Rodriguez covers state politics and immigration for the Arizona Mirror. She worked for The Arizona Republic and La Voz Arizona for four years, covering city government, economic development, immigration, politics and trade. In 2017, Laura traveled the length of the U.S.-Mexico border for “The Wall,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning project produced by The Arizona Republic and USA Today Network. She was named Best Investigative Reporter by Phoenix Magazine in its 2018 newspaper category and has been honored by the Arizona Press Club for Spanish-language news and feature reporting. She is a native of Bogotá, Colombia and lived in Puerto Rico and Boston before moving to Phoenix in 2014. Catch her researching travel deals, feasting on mariscos or playing soccer.

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