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Immigrant tuition debate challenges Arizona policy

Cristina Silva, Associated Press

PHOENIX (AP) -- Efforts to allow immigrants without legal status to pay lower tuition rates have pitted Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne against higher education leaders.

The Maricopa County Community College District decided Tuesday to uphold a new policy allowing young immigrants participating in the Obama administration's deferred deportation program to pay in-state tuition rates despite warnings from Horne that it violates state law.

"Our position is the same, and that is that we are obeying the law," district spokesman Tom Gariepy said in a phone interview. "We feel pretty confident that our interpretation of the law is correct."

A spokeswoman for Horne said Wednesday he has not made a decision to legally challenge the district's policy at this time, but could move forward as soon as Thursday.

Meanwhile, the Arizona Board of Regents has 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.

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.

Gov. Jan Brewer has said youth in the Obama administration program do not have lawful status. Immigrants protected under the new Obama policy 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 reduced tuition program in September. Gariepy would not say whether the school is prepared to defend its policy in court.

"We would cross that bridge when we come to it," he said.

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