PHOENIX — The head of a major business organization is looking for legal ways to make education more affordable for “dreamers” who attend state universities and community colleges in Arizona.
And while Glenn Hamer hopes for some state or federal legislative action, that goal ultimately could mean asking voters to rethink a law on who gets — and does not get — in-state tuition they approved in 2006.
The president of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry said Thursday he thinks there may be some wiggle room in enforcing the law, which says those not in the country legally have to pay more than the tuition available to other Arizona residents.
Hamer said the law is based on the idea that Arizona taxpayers should not be subsidizing those who have entered the country illegally or overstayed their visas. However, he believes there is a way to legislatively determine that there is some rate — less than full out-of-state tuition — that complies with the law.
There is already some precedent for the change. The Arizona Board of Regents has a policy saying those in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program can attend at a tuition of 150 percent of what is charged to residents.
The rate can still add $6,000 a year on to a student’s bill, and Hamer said he believes that legally can be driven lower.
Ideally, Hamer said, the whole problem would be resolved if Congress were to deal with the issue and formally declare that DACA recipients are in this country legally.
At this point, DACA exists only because of an executive order signed by Barack Obama when he was president.
Last year, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled unanimously the order does not make those in the program eligible for in-state tuition, no matter their residency status. If Congress acts, then the court ruling becomes legally moot.
Hamer also has a back-up plan of sorts if the tuition for DACA recipients cannot be legally tweaked and Congress fails to act: Take the issue back to Arizona voters.
The idea of restricting access to in-state tuition was approved in 2006 by a margin of more than 70 percent in favor, but Hamer said things are far different now.
“I could certainly make the argument that, way back when, we were not thinking about dreamers,” he said.
In fact, DACA did not even exist at that time. It was only in 2012 when Obama decided that those who came here as children and met other qualifications could not only remain without fear of deportation, but also be allowed to work.
“I believe the average age of a dreamer in terms of the entrance into the United States was 6 years old,” Hamer said, meaning they were not making a conscious decision to violate federal immigration law. “They’re going where their parents are taking them.”
Hamer said multiple polls have shown popular support for providing a permanent solution, including possibly a path to citizenship, for the more than 800,000 who have been accepted into the program nationally, including more than 23,000 in Arizona.
Hamer added that there already is a basis for resolving the issue: a grand compromise that would give President Donald Trump the $5 billion he wants for a border wall in exchange for legalizing not only DACA recipients, but also others who are in this country illegally.
But, failing federal resolution, Hamer said it’s in the interest of the state — and the business community he represents — to create the maximum opportunity for DACA recipients in Arizona to have a higher education, and one that is affordable. And that, he said, cold ultimately require revisiting that 2006 law which raises problems of its own.
The 2006 law, having been approved on the ballot, is subject to the Voter Protection Act. That constitutional provision bars lawmakers from repealing or making major changes to anything that voters have approved. Instead, potential changes have to go back to voters.
“The Voter Protection Act is certainly a challenge,” Hamer said.
Additionally, any alteration or repeal would go on the 2020 ballot at the same time that Trump is up for reelection. That raises the possibility that border security could be a major campaign issue.
That’s why a frustrated Hamer said his organization is hoping to get it resolved in Washington.
“I don’t think it’s too much to ask Congress to do its job once every 30 years,” he said.