PHOENIX — Arizona’s attorney general brought a lawsuit Friday against the state university system over its decision to provide lower in-state tuition rates for young immigrants who came to the U.S. at an early age.
Attorney General Mark Brnovich’s decision came just days after the Trump administration announced it will wind down the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which protects nearly 800,000 of those immigrants across the U.S. from deportation. President Donald Trump is giving Congress six months to come up with an alternative.
The White House’s action has left immigrants fearful that they will be deported or lose their jobs and other benefits they received after President Barack Obama created the program in 2012. In many states, the immigrants can get driver’s licenses and in-state tuition at public universities and colleges.
Brnovich says the Arizona Board of Regents, which oversees three public universities and other colleges, is violating the state Constitution by providing in-state tuition to the immigrants, many of whom were brought here illegally as children. His lawsuit not only takes aim at that benefit, but goes a step further and alleges that the board has been illegally raising tuition over the past decade for all students.
Brnovich said his decision to sue over tuition rates for all students was prompted by arguments from regents and university presidents that they were maintaining in-state tuition for DACA students because they had an obligation to keep education as accessible as possible.
The Republican attorney general said that bothered him because tuition has risen at nine to 10 times the inflation rate in Arizona in the past decade, a pace he says is faster than any other state. He said that, combined with a constitutional provision that tuition be “as nearly free as possible,” didn’t match the accessibility argument.
“That’s why we took this step now,” he said.
Brnovich may be right that tuition has soared in the state well beyond inflation. But state funding cuts have been a major factor.
A report by the Legislature’s budget analysts shows that inflation-adjusted state funding has gone from about $9,600 per student in the 2008 budget year to $3,500 in the 2017 year. Universities have raised tuition to make up the difference.
The lawsuit against in-state tuition for immigrant students was expected after former GOP legislator Russell Pearce sent a letter giving Brnovich 60 days to sue before taking legal action himself. Pearce’s threat came after a court ruled that students in the DACA program must pay higher-cost out-of-state tuition.
Pearce is a former state senator best known as the author of Arizona’s landmark immigration bill, SB1070. He argued that a 2006 voter-enacted law prohibits public benefits for anyone living in Arizona without legal immigration status.
There are nearly 28,000 DACA recipients in Arizona, and the lawsuit and ruling would affect at least several hundred state university students and an unknown number attending community colleges.
The Board of Regents said it learned about the lawsuit in news accounts and that it could not comment. It plans to receive advice from lawyers in a closed session on Monday.
Brnovich’s action illustrated the stark divide around the country over the program.
It came the on the same day that the University of California — led by former Department of Homeland Security secretary and Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano — sued the Trump administration over the program, saying its action was illegal and “contrary to our national values.” Fifteen states brought their own lawsuit earlier in the week against the White House.
Trump decided to begin dismantling the program after 10 Republican attorneys general threatened to sue because they believe it was illegally enacted by Obama.
Associated Press writer Bob Christie contributed to this report.