May 10 was an emotional day for Reyna Montoya.
Montoya, who immigrated to Arizona from Tijuana, Mexico, in 2003, and who founded the advocacy group Aliento, was in the Arizona House gallery when the chamber voted 32-28 to pass Senate Concurrent Resolution 1044.
The measure will ask voters in November 2022 if they want to partially repeal a 2006 ballot measure and allow immigrants who are living in the U.S. without legal permission – but who went to high school in Arizona – to qualify for in-state tuition. She started crying with joy when it passed.
“Honestly, this is such a beautiful day for Arizona, and it’s a testament to (what can happen) when policymakers come together across the aisle regardless of political affiliation,” Montoya said.
The issue is personal for Montoya, who was a junior in high school when Proposition 300 passed with the support of 71% of Arizona voters in 2006.
“This was home and I wanted to see my little sister grow, but I was considering leaving the state because I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to go to college,” she said.
Montoya ended up getting a private college scholarship, but her experience drives the work she does today.
“I didn’t want to see future generations go through the same heartbreak I had gone through,” she said.
Now, she and other advocates are gearing up for a campaign to convince voters next year that making it possible for young people who are in the U.S. without legal status to attend college is both the right thing to do for those individuals and benefits the state as a whole.
Karina Ruiz, executive director of the Arizona Dream Act Coalition, said, “It’s going to be in their hands to really understand the harm that Prop. 300 has caused in our communities and will continue.to cause, and for them to fix one section and one part of it and help students to attain higher education.”
One argument several advocates brought up – and which appears to have resonated with the handful of Republicans who voted to put SCR1044 on the ballot – is that a better-educated workforce and an improvement in Arizona’s college completion rate, among the lowest in the nation, will mean a better economy. Some tied it to the state’s “Achieve60AZ” goal to get to the point where 60% of Arizonans aged 25 to 64 have a college degree or professional certificate by 2030.
Rep. Joanne Osborne, R-Goodyear, said, “Isn’t a part of government to make policy that people are not on welfare? Well, you know that takes training and education.”
Montoya said a big part of changing people’s opinions, and one her group has been involved with for several years, has been educating people about the barriers students like she faced and showing them that many of these children are their kids’ friends and classmates and go to the same churches.
“When you hear about undocumented students, there are so many misconceptions about who we are,” she said.
SCR1044 was sponsored by Sen. Sean Bowie, D-Phoenix, plus three Republicans – Sens. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale and T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, and Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa – who are generally seen as more moderate and occasionally break with their caucuses on high-profile issues. The overwhelming majority of their GOP colleagues voted against it.
After passing the Senate in early March, it was never assigned to a committee in the House. On May 5 Udall made a motion to put it onto the calendar for a vote, joining with all the Democrats plus Rep. Joel John, R-Buckeye, and winning a series of 31-29 procedural votes to force it to move forward.
House Republicans split into a few camps when the resolution came up for a final vote May 11. Four voted for it. Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, said he favored the policy but couldn’t support the fact that it was moving forward without going through the House’s normal committee process. Bowers, who could have assigned it to a committee but didn’t, said he hoped to build more support within his caucus for it.
He compared himself to King Mongkut in “Anna and the King,” who moved forward with an execution he didn’t want to perform because Anna had publicly tried to prevent it, and he didn’t want to appear beholden to her.
“I feel in some ways like the king,” Bowers said. “I must protect this place and its policies and procedures, because it protects law.”
Other Republicans said they could support a more narrowly tailored measure, perhaps only helping people who qualify for protection from deportation under the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, but they see SCR1044 as going too far by giving in-state tuition to a larger group. Some said they worried it will encourage more illegal immigration, pointing to the increase in border crossings under the Biden administration.
“Children who are brought across the border by their parents or other caretakers are not responsible for the actions of those that brought them,” said House Majority Leader Ben Toma, R-Peoria. “Having said that, it is impossible to ignore the current situation at the border.”
Yet others said they oppose giving a benefit to people who are in the country without legal status.
“Americans should not have to pay for non-American citizens, illegals, giving them favored status for their trespass and invasion into America,” said Rep. John Fillmore, R-Apache Junction.
On a recent episode of Rep. Walt Blackman’s podcast, “The Walt Blackman Show,” the Snowflake Republican questioned how the House leadership could have been apparently blindsided by Udall and John, and predicted Democrats would benefit in 2022 by having a policy they support on the ballot to drive up turnout.
“This is the mother of all bills for Democrats,” he said.
Democrats in the House and Senate voted unanimously for SCR1044, although Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Glendale, said in a lengthy Twitter thread in February that he wants a full repeal of Prop. 300. Quezada said SCR1044 “perpetuates a #ethnonationalist perspective that SOME immigrants are good, but ONLY if they radically assimilate, go to college, speak fluent English, have papers, etc. The rest of us are just workers and are undeserving of basic levels of respect.”
Ruiz of the Arizona Dream Act Coalition agrees. As well as fighting for SCR1044 at the ballot box, she plans to keep working with lawmakers and others toward full repeal. She said it will also benefit the state if adult immigrants who are here without legal permission can access state-funded child care programs or adult education courses, such as English or vocational classes.
“To us, it’s important to continue that fight and hopefully voters understand that these people were left out,” she said.
While there haven’t been any recent state-level polls that speak directly to the issue voters will be asked to decide next year, national polling has generally shown high levels of support for giving legal status to immigrants who were brought here illegally as children.
“This is a type of policy that should be popular among voters,” said Isabel Lee Williams, a PhD candidate at the University of Arizona, “especially when it comes to children, who people conceive of as not really making a choice when it comes to their migration … (you) see a lot of support.”
Williams, who studies American politics and immigration and refugee issues, said this could make it a politically easy way for Republicans who want to show good faith to Latino voters or voters in “mixed status” families, since the policy in SCR1044 is broadly popular.
Arizona isn’t the same state politically as in 2006, when voters overwhelmingly approved the current ban. Arizona has gone from a state that Republican President George W. Bush carried by more than 10 points in 2004 to one that Democratic President Joe Biden narrowly won last November.
Part of the reason for that shift is the battles over policies such as Proposition 300, the anti-immigration SB1070 and Joe Arpaio’s tough stance as Maricopa County sheriff that gave rise to a new generation of Latino political activists and shaped the views of some people who are now becoming old enough to vote.
“That’s been a culmination of demographic changes and a lot of political advocacy for a long time,” Williams said. “It’s not surprising when you think about it that way.”