Moments after a bipartisan vote at the House of Representatives passed a measure to ask state voters to repeal a 2006 ban on in-state tuition for undocumented immigrant students in Arizona, Reyna Montoya and Jose Patiño were in disbelief.
Patiño and Montoya were both high school students when 71% of Arizona voters in 2006 told youth like them and families like theirs could not access state public programs like in-state tuition and financial aid, child care assistance and adult literacy classes.
For Patiño, who was attending Carl Hayden High School at the time, the message was that he wasn’t worth educating.
“It’s this barrier that you can’t pay for tuition, you can’t apply for scholarships … and it becomes so difficult that a lot of times it affects your inner worth, your inner value,” he said. “And it affected me. I always thought I wasn’t good enough. And I carried that. Like I’m not good enough for this, maybe I’m not good enough as a person. And I always doubt myself,” he said.
On Monday afternoon from the House gallery, the two immigrant leaders overlooked the floor where 29 Democrats and four Republicans had just voted in favor of Senate Concurrent Resolution 1044, which will give voters next year an opportunity to repeal parts of that 2006 law.
“I dreamt about this moment for years,” Patiño said just moments after the 33-27 vote concluded. “To me this is a vindication of the work that has been done for a lot of years for a lot of people.”
SCR1044 will ask Arizona voters to weigh in on a ballot measure to allow all students who attend an Arizona high school for two years and who graduate to be eligible for in-state tuition. It will also exempt postsecondary education from the definition of a state or local public benefit, which those without lawful immigration status can’t currently access.
Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa, who pushed past the Republican caucus and brought SCR1044 to the floor last week, said the measure will benefit all of Arizona.
“We need more educated youth to become tomorrow’s teachers, health care workers, lawyers, engineers and a host of other occupations, especially if we want to continue to lower taxes,” she said on the House floor.
SCR1044 was sponsored by Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale.
“Wow, so we did it,” Boyer said at a Monday evening press conference. “It’s a rarity when you can say you passed a piece of legislation that truly changes lives, and this bill changes about 2,000 lives every single year. We are standing on the shoulders of giants.”
Currently, around 2,000 undocumented students graduate every year from state high schools, with very limited access to affordable higher education options.
Angel Palazuelos is one of those students. He arrived from Mexico when he was six with his mother and older brother. His mom left poverty and violence seeking a better life for her children, Palazuelos said. They chose to overstay their visa and make Arizona home.
“She invested everything in leaving so we could come here and pursue higher education,” Palazuelos said. “And here we are.”
The 19-year-old graduated from Metro Tech High School last year. He faced uncertainty when imagining the future of his education. He had seen how his older brother, who’s also undocumented, had struggled to find a path to college because he didn’t have the “perfect resume, the perfect GPA.”
“In high school, I knew I needed to excel,” Palazuelos said. He applied for about 40 scholarships. He’s now a student of Arizona State University with financial aid from private scholarships.
ASU was a dream school for Darian Benitez Sanchez. In a press conference Monday, he shared that he couldn’t imagine getting in-state tuition would be possible in Arizona.
“Just a few weeks ago this seemed so impossible, unimaginable,” he said. “Finally, we feel understood.”
Benitez Sanchez, who is about to graduate from Brophy College Preparatory, started advocating for tuition equity when he was 16. He’d go to the state Capitol and meet with lawmakers.
“To be 16 and to be told you’re not enough to receive an education in Arizona, is heartbreaking,” Benitez Sanchez said. “Although this building has been the building that pushed legislation like SB1070, today we see that it did the complete opposite. Today we saw that true change can happen.”
The change is too late for him. His dream school accepted him, but he can’t afford it.
Speaking in front of the podium, Benitez Sanchez thought of his little sister, Maria. She’s 16 and a junior at Xavier College Preparatory.
“She was so unmotivated when she saw me trying to navigate the financial process of college, it didn’t matter what my grades were, it didn’t matter what extracurricular I did, the effort I put in, the sleepless nights,” Benitez said. “My sister has a chance now.”
SCR1044 addressed a tuition equity issue that immigrant rights advocates, education organizations and business groups have pushed for in recent years at the legislature.
In 2019, the Senate approved a proposal to create a reduced tuition rate for Arizona high school graduates regardless of immigration status, but the plan failed in the House. Later that year, the Arizona Board of Regents adopted a reduced tuition policy.
At a press conference on Monday, Udall said SCR1044 is “essential to the economic well-being of our state.”
She repeated the statement she gave on the floor hours earlier. Udall spoke to the students who will benefit from instate tuition if voters approve the repeal in 2022.
“Please take advantage of this opportunity to get a good education. Go to college, it’s not going to be easy,” she said. “At some point you’re going to be taking college algebra, or organic chemistry or calculus and you’re going to want to give up. I hope that when that day comes you’ll look back on this day, you’ll remember what it took to have the opportunity to have those difficult classes.”