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How Did a State Known for Its War on Immigrants Approve In-State Tuition for Undocumented Students?

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Arizona’s voters decided to reverse years of discrimination in higher ed.

Jose Patiño remembers how his mother cried when the acceptance letter from Arizona State University arrived in the mail in late 2006. There it was, the ultimate reward for her son’s hard work and the reason why they had sacrificed so much by leaving Mexico when he was six years old. He had not just been accepted, he received a full scholarship offer. Patiño was on the way to becoming the first member of his undocumented family to get a college degree. “I had never seen her that happy,” Patiño says.

But their happiness proved short-lived. A few months later, Patiño received a different letter from the university stating that his tuition had tripled, and he no longer qualified for the scholarship. That abrupt change was a direct result of Proposition 300, a successful ballot measure that made university students in Arizona who were not US citizens or permanent residents and those lacking legal status ineligible for in-state tuition and federal and state financial aid. The referendum was approved with 72 percent of votes in November 2006. “I’m going to figure out a way,” Patiño told his mother at the time. “It will be difficult, but I’ll figure it out.”

Patiño, now the education and external affairs director of the Arizona-based immigrant youth-led group Aliento, did figure it out. He went on to attend ASU on a private scholarship set up by university administrators sympathetic to the plight of undocumented students in Arizona. He received a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, and then a master’s degree in secondary education from Grand Canyon University. But the impact of Proposition 300 was profound. A 2011 analysis by ASU’s Cronkite News found that between the Spring of 2007 and the Fall of 2010, the number of students without proof of citizenship in public universities in the state plummeted from 1,524 to 106. Proposition 300 effectively made college education unattainable for many of Arizona’s low-income undocumented youth. 

Sixteen years later, that could change. The majority of voters in Arizona during the recent midterm elections were in favor of Proposition 308, a ballot measure that repealed provisions from Proposition 300 and opened the way for any high school graduate, regardless of immigration status, living in Arizona for at least two years, to access in-state tuition rates at state universities and community colleges. By some estimates, as many as 3,600 students might benefit from the policy every year. The successful ballot measure received 1,250,319 “yes” votes—or about 51 percent—a little shy of the 1,287,890 votes received by Gov. Katie Hobbs. That result puts Arizona alongside 22 other states and the District of Columbia that allow undocumented students to pay tuition on par with their US-born peers. 

“The beauty and the pain of this campaign,” says Patiño, who worked on the legislative proposal referring Proposition 308 to the ballot, “is that the people advocating, finding sponsors for the bill, getting the legislature to pass it, and talking to voters were the same people [Proposition 300] was intended to bury.” 

Considering its long history of policies and legislation openly hostile to immigrants and Latinos, Arizona would seem an unlikely place for a pro-immigrant measure to succeed. Indeed, Proposition 300 was only one of a series of restrictive proposals aimed at excluding and punishing foreign-born people that appeared in the early 2000s. Such efforts fell under what became known as “attrition through enforcement,” a harsh anti-immigration strategy championed by Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach and once supported by then-presidential hopeful Mitt Romney. Its basic premise was to make the lives of undocumented people in the United States so miserable they would simply leave, or “self-deport.” 

Between 2004 and 2006, voters in Arizona approved ballot measures requiring proof of citizenship to register to vote and access state and local public benefits. One initiative denied bail to people charged with felonies and believed to have entered the country without authorization, and another made English the state’s official language and prohibited undocumented immigrants who won civil lawsuits from receiving punitive damages. “You are not going to come to America and get some lottery payout,” said then-Republican State Rep. Russell Pearce, who had been the main force behind most anti-immigrant initiatives in the state.

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