PHOENIX — The Arizona Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that young immigrants granted deferred deportation status under a program started by former President Barack Obama are not eligible for lower in-state college tuition.
The ruling by a three-judge panel overturns a 2015 decision by a trial court judge that said deferred action recipients were considered legally present in the U.S. under federal immigration laws and therefore qualified for state benefits.
Instead, presiding Judge Kenton Jones wrote for the court that the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program known as DACA did not confer that status.
The court’s decision takes Arizona in the opposite direction amid a push around the country — including Republican-dominant states like Oklahoma, Tennessee and Nebraska — to grant in-state tuition to immigrants in the country illegally. Tennessee recently became the 21st state to do so, earning bipartisan support from lawmakers who said it did not make sense to punish students brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents.
Jones said federal immigration law contains some groups such as legal permanent residents, refugees or people granted special status because of a spousal battery who are considered “lawfully present,” but that DACA students are not among those groups. DACA recipients are granted work permits and temporary deferred deportations, but immigration law allows each state to decide on optional benefits for DACA recipients, he wrote.
“Accordingly, we conclude that DACA recipients are not automatically eligible for in-state tuition benefits, but rather must look to Arizona’s statutory provisions regarding alien eligibility for in-state tuition benefits,” Jones wrote.
That leaves a 2006 voter-enacted law known as Proposition 300 in control. That law prohibits public benefits for anyone living in Arizona without legal immigration status.
There are nearly 28,000 DACA recipients in Arizona, and Tuesday’s decision affects at least several hundred current state university students and an unknown number attending community colleges across the state.
Karina Ruiz was attending Arizona State University when Proposition 300 took effect in 2007, and she received an emergency one-year scholarship to get though the next year. But it took her until 2015 to earn her degree in biochemistry because he had to work and save to pay for one class a semester to finish.
Ruiz, now the executive director of the Arizona Dream Act Coalition, said current and future students will find it close to impossible to be able to finish school in a timely manner. She is now a DACA recipient.
“The only other option is for them to enroll like me a class at a time, and it’s going to take them forever to finish a degree at that rate,” Ruiz said. “Many of them will get discouraged because they will not be able to afford school.”
The Maricopa Community Colleges District, which brought the original lawsuit attempting to restore in-state tuition for DACA recipients, said more than 2,000 students will be affected. It is the state’s largest community college district, with numerous campuses in metro Phoenix.
District spokesman Matt Hasson said the district’s attorneys are reviewing the ruling and the district’s governing board will meet next week to discuss what to do next.
A current community college student taking a full-time course load would see tuition go from about $2,580 a year to $8,900 a year. University students pay about $12,000 a year in tuition if they are legal Arizona residents but up to $34,000 a year if they are not, depending on which of the three universities they attend.
Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, who appealed the 2015 ruling, said he was sympathetic to the students but his job is to enforce the law as it is written. He noted than more than 70 percent of Arizona voters approved Proposition 300 and that his job is to enforce it.
“If people don’t like the law or the policies, what you do is you change the law or you change the policymakers,” Brnovich said. “You don’t get to pick and choose which laws you want to enforce or not.”
But Ruiz called the appeal and the court’s decision “a direct attack on our community.”
“It’s an attack because they don’t want the immigrant community to be educated and contribute to society,” Ruiz said. “I wish I could move on to do science, look for the cure for cancer and whatnot. But instead I’m faced with these issues. Right now this attack reminds me that it’s important for me to keep in this fight.”
As a candidate, President Donald Trump vowed to end a program that he called “illegal executive amnesty” but has since taken a softer stance on DACA while providing mixed signals on its future.