PHOENIX — The board overseeing Arizona's three public universities voted unanimously Thursday to let young immigrants who have been granted deferred deportation status pay tuition at in-state rates.
The regents cited a Maricopa County judge's ruling that said the students are considered legally present in the state.
The decision by the Arizona Board of Regents came just two days after Judge Arthur Anderson ruled in a case brought by the attorney general against metro Phoenix's community college district. That case challenged lower in-state tuition charged to so-called dreamers offered deferred action status under President Barack Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
The action takes effect immediately for students enrolling in summer or fall classes, but board President Eileen Klein said it isn't clear how many will be affected. The cost difference between in-state and nonresident tuition is significant, with nonresidents charged at least twice as much at all three universities. An in-state student pays a little more than $10,000 a year in tuition and fees, depending on the university.
Anderson's ruling only applied to the Maricopa County Community College District and did not set statewide legal precedent. Attorney General Mark Brnovich has said he's considering whether to appeal. He said Thursday he was not consulted about the regents' plan and is reviewing it.
Regents said they believe the ruling applies statewide.
"Right now, it is not unsettled law as far as the state goes," Regent Bill Ridenour said. "I think it's frankly past time we did something for these students. We are trying to comply for state law; that was the reason for the 150 percent."
The board on Monday had advanced a proposed policy that would offer tuition at 150 percent of in-state rates to immigrants in the federal deferred action program and to others, such as those who graduated from Arizona high schools but then moved out of state. The regents still plan to vote on that policy next month, but immigrants will not be affected because of the new policy classifying them as in-state students.
State universities began charging students who lack legal documentation more for tuition after a 2006 voter-enacted law known as Proposition 300, which barred public benefits to anyone without legal presence in the U.S. Anderson's ruling said the federal government considers recipients of deferred action lawfully present. Thus, they can pay in-state tuition, he ruled.
Regents said they aren't concerned about possibly having to repay the state for the difference between tuition rates if an appeals court overturns Anderson's order.
"We can't anticipate right now what action might be taken," Klein said. "We'll see what the attorney general does. But as Regent Ridenour said, today this is the law, and we intend to comply with the law."
Gov. Doug Ducey and Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas sit on the board by virtue of their posts, but neither participated Thursday.
"It's frustrating that the will of Arizona voters is being ignored by the courts and that Washington has made such a mess of this issue," Ducey said in a statement. "But given the current status of legal decisions, I understand and accept why the regents decided as they did."
The regents' decision comes about five months after a federal judge required Arizona to begin issuing driver's licenses to immigrants receiving deferred action. Former Gov. Jan Brewer had ordered the licenses withheld, saying Obama's executive action didn't confer legal status.
"I'm thrilled to see ABOR move so quickly on this issue," said Rep. Martin Quezada, D-Phoenix. "The effects for my constituents are huge. I've had so many students who have contacted me telling me that they simply can't afford to pursue a higher education."
The higher tuition combined with limited financial aid resources for immigrants under the Obama administration program prices them out of the universities.
"And these are kids that want to contribute, they want to learn and they want to be contributing members of our society," Quezada said. "Now, with this, they'll really be able to do that."
Ana Rodriguez, a mechanical engineering major at Pima Community College in Tucson, said she was elated that the regents acted so quickly. Rodriguez, 22, is graduating in a few weeks and hopes to transfer to a university but couldn't afford out-of-state rates.
Rodriguez was brought to the U.S. when she was 8 years old and has lived in Tucson since then. PCC offers in-state tuition to its immigrant students but was not part of the lawsuit.
"Now that in-state tuition is possible in my city and in my state, that makes it a lot easier to move on to my higher education goals and my career," Rodriguez said.
Associated Press writer Astrid Galvan in Tucson contributed to this report.