So far the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals initiative has approved more than 53,000 young undocumented immigrants for temporary relief from deportation. The work permits many of these immigrants are receiving promise to not only open the door to legal work, but in Arizona, to higher education.
As the number of deferred action recipients slowly grows in Arizona, these immigrants are finding their new status can help them qualify for in-state tuition rates at the state’s largest community college system.
The development may seem unremarkable in other states, such as Texas and California, where state policies have allowed unauthorized immigrants to qualify for in-state tuition rates for over a decade.
But in Arizona, voters passed Proposition 300 in 2006, which banned the practice.
For a time, a small exception existed. The Maricopa County Community College District, the largest network of community colleges in the state, allowed out-of-state students -- including undocumented students -- to take up to six credits a semester at a rate just minimally higher than the in-state rate.
Yet legal counsel for the college district concluded last year the colleges must end the practice because of a potential conflict with Proposition 300.
“The net effect for out-of-state students, including undocumented students, was that the cost of an education just about tripled,” said Tom Gariepy a spokesman for Maricopa Community Colleges. “And that put it out of the reach for some people.”
Among those who felt like college was out of reach was 18-year-old Mario Bahena, who was brought here from Mexico without papers as a child.
“I was starting to back off from the idea of going to college,” Bahena said. “My mom she kind of lost hope. She was telling me ‘You might not be able to go to college, because if you pay out-of-state tuition it will be a lot of money, and we don't know if we can afford that.’”
That’s changed now that Bahena has qualified for the federal deferred action program. President Barack Obama announced the initiative in June as a stopgap measure to help certain undocumented immigrants under the age of 31, since legislation that would grant those immigrants a pathway to citizenship has been stalled in Congress for more than a decade.
Last month, Bahena received his work permit through the program. It is one of the documents that the Maricopa Community Colleges accepts, along with documents that prove residency, to grant students in-state tuition.
Because of that, Bahena will attend Phoenix College next semester.
“No one in my family has a degree, has been to college,” Bahena said. “So I will be first in my family, breaking that circle, making a new life.”
He registered for core classes, plus a law enforcement elective, since his dream is to one day be a police officer. As an Arizona resident, his semester will cost less than $1,000, instead of more than $4,000.
Arizona’s Board of Regents, which oversees the state’s universities, has taken a different stance than the Maricopa Community Colleges.
In a statement, the Board of Regents concluded that deferred action recipients will not have the “legal status” necessary to qualify for in-state tuition as required by Arizona law and university policy. Though the Regents will “continue to monitor this issue both at the state and federal level."
Why the discrepancy?
“Lawyers just simply disagree on this one,” said Tom Gariepy of the Maricopa Community Colleges.
So far more than 11,000 young immigrants in Arizona have applied for deferred action. The portion who have been approved is not known at this point.
As for Mario Bahena, even with community college on the horizon and a work permit in hand, he said he is still not convinced he can build a career in Arizona without future reforms that would grant him a more permanent immigration status.
“There are still some barriers I can come across being able to be a cop or being able to stay here,” Bahena said. “I won’t stop until I am a permanent resident.”
Arizona state identification cards and driver’s licenses remain off-limits to immigrants in Bahena’s situation. In an August executive order, Governor Jan Brewer called for deferred action recipients to be ineligible for driver’s licenses.
As a result, Arizona’s Motor Vehicle Division updated its list of accepted documents to qualify for a license to specifically exclude the work permits awarded to recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Fronteras Desk station KJZZ is licensed to Rio Salado College, part of the Maricopa County Community College District.