GOP voters more supportive of tuition breaks for Dreamers than GOP lawmakers




Photo via Northern Arizona University

Only about 1 in 7 Republican lawmakers backed sending a measure to the ballot in 2022 that would let voters repeal a 15-year-old ban on in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants, far less than the roughly 1 in 3 Arizona Republican voters that recent polling found supports the idea. 

Seven of the 48 Republican state legislators voted for Senate Concurrent Resolution 1044, a measure that will allow equal access to in-state tuition rates at public universities and community colleges for people who graduate from an Arizona high school, regardless of their immigration status. 

But statewide polling in February showed more than twice as many Republican voters support in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants who graduate an Arizona high school, according to an OH Predictive survey of 600 voters in Arizona. 

The February poll was commissioned by Become Arizona, a newly launched group that will push for support of the ballot proposal next year. 

The survey found that 87% of Democrats support ignoring immigration status when determining who is eligible for the lower in-state tuition rates, as do 65% of independent voters.

Still, some Republican lawmakers on May 10 used the same rhetoric that dehumanizes and stereotypes undocumented immigrants that was part of a successful campaign to ban in-state tuition for those state residents in 2006.

“Americans should not have to pay for non-American citizens, illegals, giving them a favored status for their trespass and invasion into America,” said John Fillmore, an Apache Junction Republican, on the House floor on May 10. 

The “invasion” terminology has long been used by the nativist movement in Arizona and elsewhere, and was used by white supremacist terrorists like the El Paso shooter who targeted Mexicans at a Walmart and the Christchurch gunman who killed Muslims at two mosques in New Zealand. 

“I believe this policy that we are embarking on here is misguided, unfortunate, unneeded and it’s actually detrimental to the welfare of my country,” Fillmore said. “This comes right down to the basics of, do we have a country or do we not have a country? And it’s sad to see some fall to the whims of trespassers and non-citizens.”  

Fillmore was one of 27 House Republican who voted against SCR1044, which was ultimately approved with support of four Republicans and 29 Democrats. 

Currently, thanks to Proposition 300 – a ballot measure approved by 71% of voters in 2006 — only Arizona residents who have an immigration status can access in-state tuition.

Prop. 300 prohibits Arizona residents without a lawful immigration status from accessing child care assistance, family literacy programs, adult education classes, along with in-state tuition at public colleges and universities and financial aid. 

Some of the arguments for Prop. 300 claimed that the state-run child care program “is full of illegals” and Prop. 300 would “save taxpayers millions in subsidies for illegals.”

SCR1044 would repeal parts of Prop. 300 to exempt postsecondary education from the definition of a state or local public benefit. It also makes students who attend an Arizona high school for two years and who graduate eligible for in-state tuition, regardless of immigration status. 

On the House floor, Rep. Joseph Chaplik, R-Scottsdale, dismissed the taxes paid by undocumented immigrants living in Arizona — they contributed nearly $214 million in state and local taxes, according to a 2017 estimate from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy — and said letting them receive subsidized tuition would harm citizen taxpayers. 

“This legislation allows for all illegals to qualify for taxpayer-subsidized tuition,” Chaplik said. “There are people across our state who have played by the rules and need our help. It’s not fair, it’s unethical, it’s plain wrong.” 

Rep. Shawnna Bolick, R-Phoenix, mentioned the “ravages of illegal immigrants and our open border,” said that a “wave of illegals” is “flooding our southern border,” equating asylum-seekers with drug and human trafficking, gangs, and “transnational illegal enterprises” when voting no on SCR1044.

“There’s nothing in this bill that demonstrates how we keep Arizonans safe,” she said. 

Recently, border crossings have reached a 20-year high, resulting in Republicans nationwide criticizing the Biden administration.  

Other Republican lawmakers, including Rep. Ben Toma — who was born in Romania and brought to the U.S. at age 9 — said they’d like to first see the federal government reform complex border policy before allowing thousands of Arizona residents to access more affordable college education.

Still, four House Republicans voted for SCR1044, ensuring it would go before voters in what advocates called a historic day.

Rep. Joanne Osborne of Goodyear dedicated her yes vote to a young immigrant she mentors who was undocumented. Rep. Michelle Udall of Mesa, who forced the vote on SCR1044, dedicated her vote to Reyna Montoya, a leader who was impacted by Prop. 300 and has for years advocated for tuition equity for undocumented students. 

On a May 9 post published on his website, Russell Pearce, a former lawmaker who was a driving force behind Prop. 300 and the infamous SB1070 law, said Udall’s vote is a “betrayal.” Pearce also promoted other ballot measures in 2006 related to immigration, including denying bonds to non-U.S. citizens arrested for crimes and making English the official language of Arizona.  

‘Arizona has changed’

That the rhetoric vilifying immigrants that worked in 2006 didn’t work at the Arizona Legislature in 2021 was seen by some as a sign that Arizona is changing. 

“Arizona has changed,” said Rep. Raquel Terán, a Phoenix Democrat and chairwoman of the Arizona Democratic Party. “Arizona is a new color, and it’s a color of hope, it’s a color of hope, and it’s a color of dignity.” 

In 2006, Barbara Quijada was a middle school teacher in the East Valley. She remembers hearing proponents of Prop. 300 and worrying about the future of her students and families. 

“They were set aside as people who weren’t important and whose education wasn’t important for the state,” Quijada said. “It made me angry and sad.”

Lydia Guzman, a longtime activist and advocate for immigrant communities, remembers the “anti-immigrant” ballot measures arguments for those measures 15 years ago. 

“Arizona is not the same Arizona that we were in 2006,” Guzman said. “Arizona has grown up and moved toward being more compassionate. We’ve learned a lot since 2006. What we know is that Dreamers, when they are educated and they have access to equal education, it benefits our economy.”

But if the debate this month on the House floor is any indication, the racially charged arguments against Arizona residents without an immigration status will be part of the 2022 campaign, especially in Republican primaries. 

Because races for governor, secretary of state and attorney general are expected to have at least four Republican contenders, Chuck Coughlin, a Republican political consultant, said the issue of in-state tuition for undocumented residents is likely to become a litmus test between GOP candidates. 

“On such an issue like this that is so emotionally and politically charged, people will clearly use it,” Coughlin said. “It’s going to be around.”

To the extent there’s an organized opposition to the ballot measure for in-state tuition, Coughlin said those arguments are likely to be used in an attempt to keep the status quo. But both Coughlin and Tyler Montague, a Republican working with Become Arizona, said there’s unlikely to be much of an opposition campaign.

“Who’s going to do it? There’s no entity that loses from this ballot proposition. There’s no losers in this ballot proposition,” Montague said. “The arguments against it are mostly based on fallacies. When you strip those away, it’s fear of immigrants.”

Coughlin said the most likely avenue for the opposition would be “a Trump-aligned, dark money (or) very nativist organization” that raises some anonymous money for the effort.

Montague said Become Arizona will soon form a PAC, which aims to raise several million dollars through a coalition of business groups, faith leaders and education advocates that will be used to educate voters on the economic benefit of providing better access to the about 2,000 undocumented students who graduate Arizona high schools every year. 

“People that go to college are self-reliant economically,” Montague said. “Their families and children and grandchildren are now on a track for higher achievement.”

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.