PHOENIX - Arizona filed a lawsuit Tuesday to block one of the nation's largest community-college systems from providing reduced tuition to young immigrants granted deferred deportation by the Obama administration.
The lawsuit against the Maricopa County Community College District underscores Arizona's tough stance on illegal immigration and marks its latest legal challenge to the federal program that has allowed more than 365,000 immigrants nationwide to avoid deportation since it was unveiled by President Obama a year ago.
Arizona officials argue that extending reduced tuition to those youths violates state law, which prohibits any immigrant without legal status from receiving public benefits. Attorney General Tom Horne's office had been threatening to sue the school system over its tuition policy for months.
Pima Community College in Tucson is also offering discounted tuition to some illegal immigrant students but it is not named in the lawsuit.
Officials from the Maricopa school district had directed Horne in April to seek clarity from a judge on the state law to avoid conflicting interpretations. They said the students are legal immigrants and should receive reduced tuition.
"We feel that it's too bad that he felt the need to do this and spend public funds - actually, it's double public funds since we are a public entity and so are they," said Tom Gariepy, the school district's spokesman. "We still think that our policy will be upheld and that the judge will see things our way."
Arizona 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 Obama administration's deferred deportation program are eligible for work visas, but Gov. Jan Brewer has said they are not lawful residents under state law.
The Maricopa district adopted its in-state tuition policy in September. It has roughly 230,000 students. Immigrants must prove that they live in the state and have legal status to receive in-state tuition.
"From our point of view, we didn't change our policy because what we were doing all along was accepting federal work permits," Gariepy said. "Our point has been that we don't feel we should have to discriminate among the people who present us those permits."
Maricopa officials are among a growing number of higher-education leaders who say that students who attend local high schools should later be able to pay in-state or reduced tuition if they participate in the Obama administration program.
Pima Community College also recently opted to offer in-state tuition for these students. The change reduced the annual cost for full-time enrollment from more than $9,000 to about $2,000. Horne's spokeswoman could not immediately explain Wednesday why Maricopa's policy merited legal action, while Pima's did not.
Meanwhile, the Arizona Board of Regents, which oversees the state's public universities, recently directed its legal staff to find a way to lower tuition rates for these students without violating state law.
Board members also sent a letter of support Wednesday to Arizona's GOP U.S. Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, part of the so-called Gang of Eight, a bipartisan group of lawmakers that has introduced a bill in the U.S. Senate that would extend legal rights to millions of immigrants.
"With Arizona at the forefront of the immigration reform debate, we routinely hear from hard-working, high-achieving undocumented students who have been brought to Arizona at a young age and have advanced through our K-12 system only to have their ability to further their education and contribute positively to our economy and society hindered by state and federal immigration laws," the letter read.
At least 13 states allow students who have lived in the country for many years without legal status to pay in-state tuition.
The state is also caught in a legal battle over driver's licenses for youths in the program. Civil rights activists argue that immigrants with work visas already receive driver's licenses under Arizona law, and youths in the deferred-deportation program should not be treated differently under the U.S. Constitution's equal protection clause.
Under the Obama policy, eligible immigrants 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.