The architect of a 2006 ballot measure that bars in-state tuition for illegal immigrants contends a project set up by Rep. Catherine Miranda to help so-called “Dreamers” get an affordable education violates the law.
Former Sen. Dean Martin, who wrote the ballot measure, Proposition 300, said Miranda’s free use of classrooms in the Phoenix Union High School District is a taxpayer subsidy for illegal immigrants that the law was meant to eliminate.
Adding to the question of the project’s legality under Prop. 300 is the displeasure of a Navajo college that contracted with Miranda, expecting she would focus on Native American students and not Dreamers. The term Dreamers stems from the proposed Dream Act that would have provided a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, but Congress failed to pass it.
Phoenix-area Dreamers enroll in the extended campus of Navajo Technical College, a tribal college in Crownpoint, N.M., and the credits transfer to Arizona colleges and universities.
The classes are taught at North High School and Carl Hayden High School in Phoenix.
Hundreds of students considered Dreamers have already taken part in the first two years of Miranda’s project, which she acknowledged is designed to circumvent Prop. 300. About 300 more are expected to enroll in fall 2012 classes through the program. Dreamers are illegal immigrants younger than 30 who were brought to the U.S. before they turned 16.
“I could probably attract thousands of Dreamers,” Miranda said, but space is limited.
Miranda said in an interview Sept. 12 in her Capitol office that the agreement to provide classrooms for the project was approved by the district governing board.
“We concluded we’re just like any other organization asking the school district to use the facilities,” Miranda said.
Miranda’s husband, former Rep. Ben Miranda, is on the Phoenix school district’s governing board and abstained from the vote.
Craig Pletenik, a spokesman for Phoenix Union High School District, said in an email the school charges groups for use of its facilities, but is not charging the Manzana Foundation, a nonprofit formed by the Mirandas, because it provides services in exchange for the space.
“Because it is a ‘partnership’ that benefits our students, we would not charge for space, rooms,” Pletenik said.
The memorandum of understanding between the district and Manzana states that Manzana must provide students with a host of services related to entering college, including providing access to community college courses.
Miranda said she and her husband began the project in 2011 in response to the Maricopa County Community College District’s decision to eliminate a policy that allowed illegal immigrant students who took six or fewer credit hours to pay in-state tuition.
She said it became obvious the policy was going to be changed as the Maricopa County Community College District board considered it over the span of several meetings.
“I just remember getting with Ben and saying, ‘You know what, they’re changing it anyway, what can we do?’” Miranda said. “And sure enough they did, and hundreds of students just started dropping out because they raised their tuition from $270 for a three-credit course to almost $1,000 for a three-credit course.”
Ben Miranda is now running for a seat on the Maricopa County Community College District board.
The Mirandas, both Democrats, formed the Manzana Foundation that contracts with Navajo Technical College to find students for its extended campus in Phoenix.
“We talked about a sovereign, safe, no state funds being used type of situation,” Miranda said.
Martin said he thinks the agreement between Manzana and Navajo Technical College is legal under Prop. 300 because Arizona taxpayers are not providing the subsidy. The school, which is supported by federal dollars, charges $100 per credit hour for non-tribal members.
But the arrangement with the Phoenix school district for free classrooms is in violation of the law, he said.
“Now you’re subsidizing this again, you’re just laundering it, if you will, through a different organization,” Martin said.
Amy Rezzonico, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Tom Horne, declined to comment on the legality of the program, but said the office could look into it if a complaint were lodged or if someone asked for an attorney general’s opinion.
Martin said he doesn’t plan to lodge a complaint until he learns more about the program, but he won’t be surprised if someone else does soon.
“My guess is you’re going to have a short list of a half-dozen or more legislators who are going to be immediately picking up the phone,” he said.
Martin said the ballot measure wasn’t meant to deny access to higher education for illegal immigrants, but to end the subsidization of illegal immigration.
He said before Prop. 300 passed, the state was subsidizing degrees that wouldn’t be put to use because those students can’t legally join the workforce.
“We’ve got limited funds to subsidize, let’s subsidize the ones who can pay us back,” Martin said.
Miranda said the law criminalizes education, something that generations have never had to contend with.
“No kid grows up feeling that way, thinking that way and today we have thousands of kids,” she said. “That’s first and foremost on their minds that education is against the law.”
Dozens of Dreamers attended a Sept. 10 orientation at North High School, and those interviewed said they were involved in the program to save money on their tuition for prerequisite classes.
Jonathan Hernandez, an 18-year-old high school graduate whose parents brought him to Arizona from Mexico when he was an infant, said he would go to an Arizona community college if he could, but tuition for a non-resident is triple the price of the Navajo school.
“Money’s tight, I just couldn’t afford it,” he said.
Hugo Arreola, 19, whose parents crossed the border illegally with him when he was four, said eventually he will be done with his prerequisite classes through Navajo Technical College, and he will have to be resourceful to pay for his upper level classes at one of the state’s universities.
“Apply for scholarships, as many as possible,” he said.
But the program isn’t just for Dreamers, and according to Navajo Technical College, wasn’t intended to be. The college signed on with the understanding that Manzana would recruit Phoenix-area Navajo students and students from other Native American tribes. Leaders at the college wanted for some time to tap into the Phoenix market where many young Native Americans live.
“We were surprised when most of the students turned out to be Hispanic students,” said Tom Davis, the college’s provost and acting president.
The college has hired a coordinator whose sole job is to get more Native Americans into the program.
“We continue to work at least temporarily with Manzana simply because we made some early commitments and what we thought were going to happen didn’t quite happen,” Davis said. “We did not move down there to address Hispanic education needs, we moved down there to address some very specific needs with the American Indian community.”
Davis said he thinks the problem is that the Mirandas are more connected to the Hispanic community than Native American community.
Davis declined to provide the value of the contract with the Mirandas except to say it was modest and by the semester, and the college is determined “to get the ship the right way.”
Miranda said there has been a greater effort to recruit more Native Americans, but she wouldn’t know the final number for the fall semester until after registration closed Sept. 13.
“There’s a high demand for Dreamers, so that’s why we have more of an enrollment of Dreamers, but our focus is to attract more Native American students and I am getting the word out,” Miranda said.
Tuition by the Numbers
Non-Resident per credit hour
Navajo Technical College: $100*
*NTC tuition for non-Navajo students. The college does not use state residency status to determine tuition.