Karina Ruiz, the president of the Arizona Dream Act Coalition, addresses the Supreme Court's ruling on tuition at the Capitol.EXPAND
Karina Ruiz, the president of the Arizona Dream Act Coalition, addresses the Supreme Court's ruling on tuition at the Capitol.
Joseph Flaherty

'It Broke My Heart:' Dreamers React to Arizona Supreme Court Tuition Decision

Like most students, when Carlos Yanez was applying to college, he faced the question of how to pay for it.

Yanez's situation, however, was even more complicated than your average high schooler. He is undocumented, and he thought that he would have to wait two or three years until he had saved enough money — undocumented students are ineligible for federal financial aid.

"I was really sad and I was really depressed because I didn't think I was going to go to college," Yanez said.

Thanks to a lifeline from a foundation, TheDream.Us, Yanez was able to attend Arizona State University with a full-ride scholarship. Yet the academic future of 18-year-old Yanez and thousands of other Dreamers in Arizona is in doubt. On Monday, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that DACA recipients are ineligible for in-state tuition at Arizona public colleges.

Because of the ruling, immigrant students protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program will have to pay much higher out-of-state tuition at public colleges in Arizona. It adds up to around twice the cost.

"When would that ever be affordable? My parents can't afford that. I can't afford that," Yanez told reporters at the Capitol on Monday evening. "It's really disheartening, you know?"

The Supreme Court's decision marks the end of a protracted court battle over whether undocumented immigrants are entitled to in-state tuition. The ruling came just a week after the state's high court heard arguments in the case against Dreamers brought by Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich. Arizona sued the Maricopa County Community District in 2013 for a policy granting DACA recipients in-state tuition.

A subsequent decision by a Maricopa County Superior Court judge said that all Arizona public colleges must offer in-state tuition to Dreamers, but last year the Arizona Court of Appeals sided with the attorney general.

"While people can disagree what the law should be, I hope we all can agree that the attorney general must enforce the law as it is, not as we want it to be," Brnovich said in a statement on Monday. "As attorney general, my duty is to uphold the law and the will of more than one million voters who passed Proposition 300 in 2006."

Arizonans have been hostile to the idea of giving undocumented immigrants state services, including in-state tuition. In 2006, voters approved Proposition 300, a ballot measure that denied in-state tuition to students who were not citizens or permanent residents, or to anyone "without lawful immigration status."

Those three words — "lawful immigration status" — proved to be hugely important to the court battle over tuition. The DACA program, enacted in 2012, shields young undocumented immigrants from deportation and allows them to obtain work permits. In that sense, defenders of the in-state tuition policy argue that DACA was intended to provide lawful status to young undocumented immigrants.

A detailed opinion from the Arizona Supreme Court explaining the decision is expected next month. In the meantime, undocumented students will start to come to terms with what the ruling means for their education. The ruling will place a much greater financial burden on undocumented students hoping to attend an Arizona college. In-state tuition at ASU is just under $10,000, but for non-residents, tuition is around $26,684.

Genesis Egurrola, the vice president of the Arizona Dream Act Coalition, got the news about the Supreme Court in her inbox shortly after leaving class on Monday. When several friends read the email alongside her, they instantly started crying, Egurrola said.

"Hearing this announcement, it broke my heart," she told reporters.  Egurrola, who is 24, said that after a moment of disbelief, she urged her friends that this fight had been a long one, and they would find a solution. They plan to ask their school counselors and other organizations to figure out what to do next.

"We're going to continue to find ways to further our education, because anything can be taken away from us aside from our education," she said.

Top education officials reacted to the ruling with dismay. Arizona Board of Regents Chair Bill Ridenour said that in compliance with the ruling, DACA recipients will no longer receive in-state tuition at public colleges. "Our universities will work with currently enrolled DACA students to help them understand the implications for tuition," he said in a statement.

Ridenour also mentioned that DACA students who graduate from an Arizona high school can take advantage of a slightly more affordable tuition rate that is 150 percent of the in-state fee.

Similarly, University of Arizona President Robert Robbins said that he was "disappointed" by the ruling. "In conjunction with the Arizona Board of Regents, we will comply with the ruling and support our DACA students to continue their education at the UA," Robbins said.

President Trump signed an order to end the Obama-era DACA program in September. Although Trump's decision to end DACA is currently on hold in the courts, negotiations to extend the program have gone nowhere.

And despite the best efforts of immigrant-rights activists, Congress has yet to hold a vote on a Dream Act that would allow a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in the U.S. In an Easter tweet, Trump declared that "DACA is dead."

The Arizona Supreme Court decision is the latest blow, but organizers are not giving up.

"We're going to keep fighting. We're going to keep advocating," Yanez said.

"The community always rises up," he added. "We always do something to stop the latest attack, and that's what this is. They constantly attack and attack, but we'll always keep fighting back.

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