PHOENIX — Arizona voters will get to decide next year whether to let children who came to this country illegally to attend state universities and community colleges paying no more tuition than other state residents.
Four Republicans sided with all 29 Democrats Monday to provide the margin of victory for SCR 1044. With a prior 17-13 vote in the Senate, that sends the measure directly to the 2022 ballot; it does not need the input of Gov. Doug Ducey.
But there is no guarantee the change the measure proposes ever will take place.
SCR 1044 in essence is asking voters to overturn part of Proposition 300, a 2006 ballot measure that denies various public benefits to those not in the country legally. That includes any form of subsidized tuition.
It was approved by a margin of 71-29%.
Since that time, however, the Obama administration began the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. It allows people who arrived in this country illegally as children to remain and even to work if they meet certain conditions.
Based on that, the Maricopa Community College system and, later, the Arizona Board of Regents agreed to let DACA recipients pay in-state tuition.
But the Arizona Supreme Court ruled in 2018 that is precluded by Proposition 300. The 2022 vote would remove that legal impediment.
Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa, who engineered Monday’s vote despite opposition from a majority of her own caucus, said it is in the long-term interest of the state to ensure more children who have gone to Arizona high schools have the chance to get a higher education. She said the state’s economy is on the upswing.
“But without an increasing number of college graduates, these gains cannot hold,” she said.
Rep. Udall was not alone.
“We have high-tech jobs that are coming here,” said Rep. David Cook, R-Globe.
“We need a trained and educated labor force for these multibillion dollar industries that are flocking to this state,” he continued. “And where are we going to find them?”
Rep. Leo Biasiucci, R-Lake Havasu City, said, however, he believes this will become a magnet for illegal immigration.
He said it would be one thing if the measure applied only to “dreamers,” the youngsters who were brought here as children who now are in the federal government’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Instead anyone who graduated from an Arizona high school after spending at least two years in the state would qualify, regardless of legal status.
But Rep. Joel John, R-Arlington, rejected the premise this will lead to an increase in illegal immigration.
Rep. John, who comes from a farming family, said the people who make the trek across the desert are looking for immediate work for themselves.
“They’re not thinking 15 years down the road ‘My kid’s going to be able to pay less in tuition,’” he said.
Rep. John Fillmore, R-Apache Junction, said, for him, the issue is simple.
“Americans should not have to pay for non-American citizens — illegals — giving them favored status for their trespass and invasion into America,” he said.
Rep. Fillmore said this amounts to “dollars stolen by our taxes that we pay in this state for people who are not of this country, that are not deserving.”
Rep. Joseph Chaplik, R-Scottsdale, sought to put that into dollars and cents, saying the difference between resident tuition and what is charged to out-of-state residents — the amount that those not here legally can pay to attend — is about $24,000 a year.
“Why should a non-U.S. citizen get that benefit?” he asked, saying the price tag could run into “potentially hundreds of millions of dollars over the coming years to subsidize the cost of college for people who aren’t even American citizens.”
Some of Monday’s debate mirrored the whole discussion of illegal immigration that led to the 2006 ballot measure. And it is likely to be repeated in the months between now and November 2022.
Rep. Shawnna Bolick, R-Phoenix, cited the case of 21-year-old Grant Ronebeck, who was shot and killed in 2015 while working at a Mesa convenience store by someone in the country illegally, someone Rep. Bolick described as “a crazed felon who had been facing deportation” and who she said “would not have been at the convenience store if it had not been for our broken immigration system.”
“This is just an example of just one crime committed by immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally,” Rep. Bolick said. And she decried “the latest wave of illegals flooding our southern border,” taking a slap at the Biden administration.
Others had different stories, including Rep. Cesar Chavez, D-Phoenix, who told colleagues of how his parents, seeking a better life, left Guanajuato, Mexico, taking him at age 3 across the Sonoran desert “to come to the greatest country on the planet, a country that I hold my loyalty, my love and every ounce of my existence to.”
“With this vote, we are one step closer to providing that very same opportunity to many of those children that only know the United States of America, that only hold that vote of loyalty and no other country,” Rep. Chavez said.
Rep. Bret Roberts, R-Maricopa, said he wouldn’t have a problem if this were limited to “dreamers,” those children who were brought here by parents and had no say in the matter. He said there is no reason to penalize them for decisions they had no part in making.
He said, though, the wording of SCR 1044 means anyone who spends at least two years going to and graduating from high school here gets the benefit of in-state tuition. Yet someone who graduates from a high school in another state and is a U.S. citizen would be ineligible for the lower rates.
But Rep. Jennifer Jermaine, D-Chandler, said there’s nothing special about that.
She said anyone can move to Arizona from any other state and get resident tuition if they first live here for at least two years. Rep. Jermaine said all this does is apply the same two-year rule to all who graduate from an Arizona high school, regardless of immigration status.
At least some opposition from GOP lawmakers was less about the content of the measure and more the way it got to the floor for a final vote.
That process is normally controlled by House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa. But he refused to schedule it for a vote despite the fact it had been approved by the Senate more than two months ago.
So Rep. Udall and Rep. John, working with the 29 Democrats in the 60-member chamber, engineered a procedural maneuver last week to force a Monday vote, essentially bypassing House Speaker Bowers and the other Republicans.
On Monday, House Speaker Bowers said he was sympathetic to what is in the measure and said he was working quietly behind the scenes to line up more votes. But he could not go along once Rep. Udall and Rep. John forced the issue.
“I must protect this place and its policies and procedures,” he said.
But Rep. Cook chided colleagues for refusing to support what he believes is good public policy simply because a majority of Republicans may not like it. He said the fact remains that the legislature is based on majority rule and a majority of lawmakers supported SCR 1044.
Rep. Udall provided no explanation for her decision to force the Monday vote rather than wait.