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Arizona Court Overturns In-State Tuition for Dreamers with DACA

In Arizona, young immigrants with DACA status react to the news of a court ruling stating they are not eligible for lower in-state college tuition.
File photo of Dreamers listening to speakers during a "United we Dream" rally in Washington.Alex Brandon / AP

PHOENIX, Ariz. — The Arizona Court of Appeals has overturned a ruling that allowed young immigrants who were granted protection from deportation to pay in-state tuition at the state's public colleges and universities.

Recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, were allowed to begin paying in-state tuition in 2015, after a judge ruled that DACA recipients were considered legally present in the U.S. and therefore qualify for state benefits.

But Appeals Court Judge Kenton Jones said in his ruling Tuesday that the DACA program did not confer that status. Instead, he said federal immigration law allows each state to decide on optional benefits for DACA recipients. He also noted Arizona law bars in-state tuition for anyone who doesn’t have a legal status.

The difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition is significant. Students who attend an Arizona community college full time pay about $2,580 a year for in-state tuition and about $8,900 a year out-of-state, according to the Associated Press. At a state university, in-state tuition is about $12,000 a year compared to $34,000 a year for out-of-state tuition.

The decision leaves DACA recipients, like 23-year-old Belen Sisa, fearing for their future. Sisa will be a senior at Arizona State University in the fall and currently pays in-state tuition.

“I’m so close to the finish line,” she said. “I waited so long to get to graduation day, and it’s disappointing to see Arizona waste taxpayers’ money on lawsuits that attack DACA recipients who just want to get an education.”

Sisa, who came to the U.S. from Argentina when she was 6 years old, has been attending ASU ever since she transferred from Chandler-Gilbert Community College about a year ago. She said the 2015 ruling that allowed DACA recipients to pay in-state tuition made it possible for her to transfer to ASU.

“Before that, I didn’t see going to a university as something that was attainable,” she said.

Sisa is one of the the nearly 28,000 DACA recipients living in Arizona. She said she doesn’t want to let Tuesday’s ruling prevent her from reaching graduation and is prepared to fight back.

“I can’t let this stop me,” she said. “I’m so close to give up now.”

Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, who appealed the 2015 ruling, said that while he understands the Dreamers' situation, he has to enforce the law. In 2006, a majority of the state's voters approved Proposition 300, which prohibits undocumented students from paying in-state tuition and receiving federal and state financial aid, said Brnovich.

"I am sympathetic to these young adults who are looking to improve their lives, but as Attorney General my job is to preserve the will of Arizona voters, not make new policy,” he told NBC Latino in an e-mailed statement.

RELATED: Analysis: DACA Boosts Young Immigrants' Well-Being, Mental Health

In the meantime, Sisa said she encourages other DACA recipients to continue enrolling in classes at the state’s public colleges and universities. Sisa made headlines a few months ago when she posted a picture of herself along with a 1040 tax form on Facebook to show she had paid state taxes in Arizona despite being undocumented.

“It's the best way we can defy this ruling and show that we aren’t willing to give up on our education."

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