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Updated Apr 24, 2013 - 5:33 pm

Immigrant tuition debate challenges Arizona policy

PHOENIX -- Efforts to allow some immigrants without legal status to pay lower tuition rates have pitted Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne against higher education leaders and raised questions about whether the state's refusal to grant public benefits to young immigrants granted deferred deportation by the Obama administration is legal.

Officials from the Maricopa County Community College District said Wednesday that a judge should review Arizona's law to avoid conflicting interpretations. Horne has threatened to sue the district over its recent policy allowing young immigrants participating in the Obama administration program to pay in-state tuition rates.

``We believe that MCCCD's policy continues to comply with state and federal law. Nonetheless, we agree that there is uncertainty about the state statutes,'' school officials wrote in a letter to Horne on Wednesday.

Under state law, immigrants without lawful status do not qualify for public benefits, including in-state tuition rates. But the law doesn't define what constitutes a legal resident. It does, however, list a work visa as sufficient evidence of legal status. Young people in the program are eligible for work visas, but Gov. Jan Brewer has said they are not lawful residents under state law.

The state's dismissal of the federal deferred action program is already up for legal review. Lawyers demanding driver's licenses for youths in the program have raised similar challenges to the state's policy.

For now, neither side is backing down.

The Maricopa college district's executive board decided Tuesday to uphold its in-state tuition policy despite Horne's warnings. Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for Horne said Wednesday that he has not made a decision to legally challenge the district's policy at this time, but could take action as soon as Thursday.

Maricopa officials are among a growing number of higher education leaders statewide who say students who attend Arizona high schools should later be able to pay in-state or reduced tuition if they participate in the Obama administration program.

Pima Community College in Tucson also recently opted to offer in-state tuition for these students. The change reduces the annual cost for full-time enrollment from more than $9,000 to about $2,000. A school spokesman said Wednesday that Horne had not raised legal concerns about the policy.

More recently, the Arizona Board of Regents directed its legal staff to find a way to lower tuition rates for these students without violating state law. A proposal is expected in June. The regents have not reached out to Horne's office for legal guidelines, spokeswoman Sarah Harper said.

``They would definitely be making sure that any options would be within the perimeters of the law,'' Harper said.

Immigrants protected under the Obama policy unveiled in June 2012 must be younger than 30 and must have come to the U.S. before they turned 16. Roughly 80,000 immigrants in Arizona are eligible, according to state estimates.

The Maricopa County Community College District adopted its in-state tuition program in September.

``We feel pretty confident that our interpretation of the law is correct,'' district spokesman Tom Gariepy said in a phone interview Wednesday.

At least 13 states allow immigrants who have lived in the country for many years without legal status to pay in-state tuition.

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