PHOENIX — Saying he's just following the law, Attorney General Tom Horne refused Monday to drop his lawsuit against community colleges that offer lower in-state tuition to students who qualify for the federal “deferred action for childhood arrivals” program.
Horne told a group of activists who met with him that he is bound by a 2006 voter-approved proposal. It says that those who are not citizens or legal residents are not entitled to “resident” status for tuition purposes, regardless of how long they have lived in the state.
Horne repeatedly sidestepped questions of how he feels about the law, saying his views are irrelevant.
“My job is to enforce the law as it is written,” he told the nearly dozen people invited for the meeting.
The issue is more than academic.
Horne's office filed suit earlier this against the Maricopa Community College District after its board adopted a policy saying that those in the DACA program are entitled to the lower tuition. Horne said he will pursue other community colleges that have subsequently adopted their own similar policies, including one at Pima Community College.
The meeting turned decidedly ugly at several points, with some of those in the group saying he has no moral right to decide the issue. Carolyn Cooper cited a series of Horne's legal problems, including a bump-and-run accident to which he pleaded no contest earlier this year and a more recent finding by Yavapai County Attorney Shelia Polk that he violated campaign finance laws, a contention he disputes.
“You cheated to get elected into the seat that you're in,” Cooper said.
Laurita Moore, a faculty member at Maricopa colleges, said the policies aimed at students remind her of Nazi Germany, “Where all of a sudden, young people were being removed from my classroom.”
“They're not being sent to gas chambers,” responded Horne.
“But they are being sent in hiding,” Moore shot back. “You are trying to remove people from our community.”
“I think you've made an inappropriate comparison,” Horne said.
The half-hour meeting ended after those in the meeting, including some students and relatives of “dreamers,” said it was clear that nothing they were saying was going to change Horne's mind. At that point, those in attendance threatened to remain in Horne's conference room until he did.
In the end, however, only Cooper remained. And she was arrested by Capitol police and charged with trespass.
At issue is that 2006 ballot measure limiting tuition to citizens and legal residents. It also denies any form of waivers of tuition or fees, grants, scholarships, financial aid, tuition assistance “or any other type of financial assistance that is subsidized or paid in whole or in part with state monies.”
But there also is a provision that says the higher tuition must be charged to those who are “without lawful immigration status.”
That raises the question of those in the DACA program have “lawful immigration status.”
The program, approved last year by the Obama administration, is available to those who arrived in this country as children but are not here legally. It allows them both to remain as well as get permits to work in this country legally.
At last count more than 20,000 applications had been received from Arizona residents, with close to 17,000 approved. Nationwide more than 455,000 have been accepted into the program.
But Assistant Attorney General Leslie Cooper, who is pursuing the case against Maricopa Community College, said that's not the same as "lawful status.''
“A number of different groups of people are entitled to stay here and work, even though their status isn't lawful,” she said. And Cooper said that includes those accepted in the DACA program.
Horne, who is facing a tough reelection campaign next year, repeatedly sidestepped questions of whether he believes the law is proper.
“What I'm saying is, we did not interpret the law for purposes of ideological outcome,” he said.
“We felt compelled by the law to do our duty, which is to enforce the law as it is written,” Horne continued. “If you disagree with it, you can get the Legislature to change it.”
That last point is not exactly true. Because the law was approved by voters, it's protected against legislative tinkering or repeal. The only way to alter it is to take the issue back to the ballot.
This dispute is similar to but legally unrelated to a separate lawsuit in federal court over the question of whether those in the DACA program are entitled to get a state-issued license to drive.
That legal fight surrounds a 1996 law, approved by the Legislature, which says licenses are available only to those who can show their presence in this country is “authorized by federal law.” Lawyers for Gov. Jan Brewer, whose administration has denied licenses to DACA recipients, contend that program is simply an administrative decision to ignore the fact these people are not in this country legally.