Court Ruling Raises Questions About DREAMers’ Tuition

By Jude Joffe-Block
Published: Wednesday, May 6, 2015 - 5:02pm
Updated: Thursday, May 7, 2015 - 11:21am
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(Photo by Jude Joffe-Block - KJZZ)
Immigrant students and their supporters gathered at Phoenix College in 2015.

New questions are being raised about university tuition rates for immigrant students in Arizona who qualify for the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

On Tuesday, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Arthur Anderson upheld a Maricopa County Community College District policy that allows immigrant students who have work permits under the DACA program to pay in-state tuition rates.

Immigrant rights advocates are hoping that ruling will set a precedent for other institutions in the state.

One of the students celebrating the ruling is 21-year-old political science major, Belen Sisa.

Sisa was born in Argentina and came to Arizona at the age of 6. She is a so-called DREAMer. She didn’t have papers, but two years ago she qualified for DACA.

The federal program allows certain young immigrants brought here illegally as children to get temporary work permits and a reprieve from deportation.

Sisa then enrolled in Chandler-Gilbert Community College, one of the 10 colleges in the Maricopa County Community College District. With DACA and a work permit, Sisa was allowed to pay the in-state rate of $84 per credit hour, rather than the $325 out-of-state rate.

The judge’s ruling this week allows her and about 1,200 others to continue paying the in-state tuition rate.   

“When I found this out, this decision, I cried,” Sisa said. “It was crying of happiness and I was shocked because I could not believe it. This is a decision that could change all of our futures.”

Former Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne had challenged the community college district’s policy, arguing it violated a 2006 voter-approved law that banned undocumented students from qualifying for in-state tuition.

But Anderson ruled this week that DACA recipients like Sisa are legally present and therefore eligible for in-state tuition.

If the case had gone the other way, Sisa said it would have had a big consequences.

“I would not have been able to continue going to school or achieving my bachelor’s degree,” Sisa said.

Sisa’s dream is to get her bachelor’s degree at Arizona State University and then go on to law school to become an immigration attorney.

But so far, the Arizona Board of Regents which oversees ASU and the other two state universities, have not allowed DACA students to pay in-state tuition rates.

“The issue here is whether the Arizona Board of Regents has the courage to now do what is right and stop discriminating against these students, said former state senator Alfredo Gutierrez, speaking at a news conference Wednesday.

Gutierrez is on the Maricopa Community College District Board and wants to see the Regents enact the same tuition policy. In fact, Gutierrez said it is their duty after this court ruling.

“So let us ask, let us plead, let us beg that the Regents do the right thing,” Gutierrez said. “But if they don’t, let us be prepared to sue.”

The Board of Regents announced on Wednesday that it would hold a meeting on Thursday morning to discuss the recent ruling.

On Tuesday evening, Board President Eileen Klein released a statement saying the board was reviewing the court’s decision.

The statement said the board was “committed to broadening access and affordability for all students in Arizona and, as part of that mission, supports lawful opportunities to increase access for DACA students.”

The board had planned to vote in June on a different proposal that would allow graduates of Arizona high schools who do not qualify for Arizona resident status – including DREAMers – to pay 150 percent of the in-state tuition rate. That would be cheaper than the out-of-state rate.

“At this time, we do not expect this ruling to impact the status of this proposed policy since it affects all Arizona high-school graduates,” said Klein’s statement released on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, it is still unclear if the legal fight over tuition at the Maricopa Community Colleges is actually settled.

“Right now our office is reviewing the decision, looking at the options, including appeal,” said Kristen Keogh, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Attorney General’s Office.

Keogh said that decision over whether to appeal will be made by June 5.

“No one is more sympathetic to the cause of immigration than General Brnovich,” Keogh said. “However, the way he sees it, the law is the law. Arizonans voted against granting in-state tuition to DREAMers.”

Brnovich is appealing another court ruling that granted Arizona driver’s licenses to DACA recipients. The opening brief for that appeal to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is due on June 1.

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