A Win and a Loss in Dreamers’ Fight for In-State Tuition

A Win and a Loss in Dreamers’ Fight for In-State Tuition

A Win and a Loss in Dreamers’ Fight for In-State Tuition

Two opposing decisions in Arizona and New Jersey make clear the importance of local politics for Dreamers.


With a US Congress seemingly incapable of overhauling the immigration system, states have taken it upon themselves to determine what rights to extend to undocumented immigrants—and different places often come to very different conclusions. Last week, two divergent decisions in Arizona and New Jersey make clear the significance of local politics for Dreamers.

On April 10, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) are no longer eligible for in-state tuition at community colleges. DACA offers exceptional young undocumented immigrants two-year work permits and protection from deportation. With this ruling, the court affirmed an appellate-court decision that sided with Arizona in its lawsuit challenging the Maricopa County Community College system. In 2013, shortly after President Obama announced the creation of DACA, the community-college system announced that it would allow DACA recipients to pay in-state tuition. And Arizona, at the direction of then-Governor Jan Brewer, sued.

Meanwhile, across the country, New Jersey’s State Assembly passed a bill on Thursday granting undocumented immigrants access to state financial aid for college. The bill, which was already approved by the state Senate, is now on Governor Phil Murphy’s desk. The victory is a long time coming—the path here has stretched as long as Arizona’s fight to withhold in-state tuition to its undocumented immigrants. In 2013 the New Jersey legislature sent then-Governor Chris Christie a package that included both in-state tuition and financial-aid benefits for undocumented immigrants; Christie only signed the in-state tuition portion.

“It’s not a maybe, it’s a definite game changer,” said Sara Mora, a 21-year-old DACA recipient and immigrant-rights activist from New Jersey. “Being able to apply for and be considered for financial aid is the option everyone is looking for when you’re applying for school.” Mora graduated last May with an associate’s degree from Union County Community College. She was accepted to a four-year university to begin this fall with a scholarship that required full-time enrollment. “But I couldn’t even afford part-time, so I had to drop that offer,” Mora said.

The 2013 bill came just in time for her. “I never had to pay out of state tuition, but I only made it by a year,” Mora said. Because undocumented immigrants are not recognized as residents of the counties they live, they are charged non-resident tuition, which can be two or three times the tuition that in-state and in-county students are charged. Full-time in-state students at Mora’s alma mater, for example pay $2,404 per semester, while out-of-state students pay $4,804. Because undocumented students, even those with DACA, are ineligible for federal student aid, the costs are often the chief barrier to college for undocumented students.

It’s for this very reason that the ambitious young people who are the primary beneficiaries of DACA have made in-state tuition a policy priority for themselves. Now that Trump has ended DACA and the short-term fate of the program is tied up in the courts, these questions will become more pressing for the most exceptional undocumented young people.

If Murphy signs the bill into law, New Jersey will become the eighth state, after California, Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, Minnesota, and Washington, to offer state financial aid to undocumented students. As it is, 20 states extend in-state tuition to state- and community-college students. In order to qualify, most policies require that a student show that they went to high school in the state.

According to Assemblyman Gary Schaer, a Democrat, roughly 600 young people would become eligible for New Jersey’s Tuition Aid Grants, at a total cost of roughly $4.5 million. Advocates of in-state tuition have long argued that encouraging young people, regardless of their immigration status, to pursue higher education pays off financially in the long run.

In Arizona, meanwhile, young immigrant-rights activists in the state have received the state’s Supreme Court ruling as a serious blow—the kind of loss that feels gratuitously cruel.

“We don’t know why they would continue using taxpayer money to fund this lawsuit knowing that DACA is already gone,” said Reyna Montoya, the founder of Aliento, a Phoenix-based immigrant-rights organizing group. Montoya, 26, is a DACA recipient. She holds two BA degrees from Arizona State University and a master’s from Grand Canyon University. The ruling does not affect her directly, but it still feels personal.

The policy at Maricopa County Community College, which describes itself as one of the largest community-college systems in the country, was narrow. It did not extend in-state tuition to all undocumented students, only those who had received DACA. (In Arizona, there are around 28,000 DACA recipients.) The state had already spoken on the issue. Whereas blue states have ramped up protections for undocumented immigrants, Arizona went the other way. Years before Arizona passed SB 1070, its “papers please” law, voters passed Proposition 300, a bill that prohibited undocumented immigrants from accessing public higher education as in-state residents. The state is one of six states, according to a 2015 analysis by the National Conference of State Legislatures, that have explicitly barred undocumented immigrants from accessing in-state tuition.

District officials decided that, for their purposes, undocumented immigrants with work permits (granted by DACA) could be considered residents. The narrow benefit was short-lived. Throughout the community-college system, in-county students pay $86 per credit hour, while out-of-state residents pay a whopping $327 per credit hour. According to Montoya, some 2,000 DACA recipients are currently enrolled in Arizona public higher education.

“It has people really concerned and many are wondering what they will do,” Montoya said. “Right now we’re telling our students to finish the semester strong, and we’ll try to work out scholarships.” But, Montoya added, nearly quadrupling tuition will slow many students down. Full-time students may need to become part-time students. Dreamers, as DACA recipients are often called, are not easily deterred, Montoya assured me: “We have some people who have graduated from university, but it took them more than eight years to do it. But it’s definitely very discouraging.”

Montoya spent much of the fall and winter in Washington, DC, lobbying for a legislative solution for DACA recipients who will soon lose their protective status, and said immigrant-rights activists must work in both the local and national politics. “It’s twofold. We definitely have to continue our work here at the local and state level, but we can’t just forget about the federal level,” Montoya said. “That’s where immigration starts in the first place. If we were documented, we wouldn’t be in this predicament.”

Mora, from New Jersey, had to put off her college dreams because of the cost. She’s been making money as a babysitter and an organizer with Make the Road New Jersey. She plans to start re-applying for colleges soon with the hope that her governor signs the bill into law.

Montoya, in Arizona, remains undeterred despite a year of serious setbacks at the state and federal level. “Because,” she said, “we can see what happens when Congress doesn’t have the courage to act and provide a solution.”

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly tabulated the number of states that offer financial aid to undocumented students. There are currently seven such states.

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