Pushed out of school in Arizona

Jeff Bale reports on the effects of an anti-immigrant ballot measure.

SOME 4,000 college and university students in Arizona have been denied in-state tuition because they didn't prove they were legal residents of the state or U.S. citizens.

This is the result of Proposition 300, a ballot initiative passed in the November 2006 elections. Prop 300 added to the anti-immigrant hysteria in the state by claiming that huge numbers of undocumented immigrants were benefiting from tax-funded benefits, such as deep discounts on tuition at state colleges for Arizona residents.

On the one hand, these statistics reported by Arizona's three state universities and community colleges dispel the myth that hordes of undocumented students take advantage of the system. The number of students denied in-state tuition is just over 1 percent of in-state enrollment at Arizona institutions of higher education.

But it would be wrong to downplay the chilling effect that Prop 300 is having.

To "comply" with the new law, students must sign an affidavit attesting to their immigration status and/or citizenship. Any time forms like these are linked to social services, it affects a number of people who are legal residents, but are unsure of signing papers that threaten jail time for perjury.

In addition, high school students who benefit from "dual enrollment" programs that allow them to earn college credit for advanced math, science and foreign language classes have also been affected.

In one district in the Phoenix area, reports from teachers indicate that dual enrollments have dropped by one-half. Of course, this doesn't mean that one-half of the students are undocumented, but instead speaks to the fear that such laws create.

Defenders of Prop 300 say that undocumented students are not being kicked out of school, but "only" have to pay out-of-state tuition. At Arizona State University (ASU), though, this means a jump in full-time tuition from around $5,000 a year to over $18,000.

Even at community college, tuition jumps three- or four-fold for out-of-state students. No wonder then that the impact of Prop 300 is being felt most at the community college level.

But even more dramatic effects of the law have gone unreported. Other provisions of the ballot initiative effectively criminalize adult education offered by the Arizona Department of Education (ADE). Undocumented adults are barred entirely from all ADE programs, even if they pay for them. What's more, state-supported aid for child care is also now denied to undocumented residents.

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PROP 300 was passed overwhelmingly in the 2006 election as one among a number of anti-immigrant ballot initiatives that also declared English the official language of Arizona and barred undocumented immigrants from receiving jury awards. These referendums follow other vindictive laws passed in Arizona recently, including a 2000 measure outlawing bilingual education--named "English for the Children"--that was promoted by anti-immigrant bigot Ron Unz.

Last year, legislators passed an employer sanctions law stiffening penalties for companies that knowingly employ undocumented workers. In addition, several of Arizona's largest cities have directed police departments to begin conducting immigration status checks during routine policing.

These last two developments have led to the topsy-turvy situation where the business community and police chiefs have become the loudest voices against anti-immigrant laws and policies.

Taken together, these laws, referendums and directives make Arizona by far the most hostile state in the country in terms of the immigration panic. That doesn't mean, however, that there aren't openings to build a fighting movement.

For example, ASU President Michael Crow identified the roughly 200 students affected by Prop 300 and secured private scholarships to make sure they can stay in school. ASU's undergraduate student body passed a resolution in support of Crow when he came under fire from right-wingers in the state capitol and on the radio.

More important are the results of a recent Rocky Mountain Poll of residents in Maricopa County. Maricopa is home to over 3.5 million people in greater Phoenix, which accounts for over 60 percent of the state's total population. About one-third of the county's population is Latino.

The poll found that 76 percent of people thought that a federal law should be passed to allow for easier immigration to the country--an increase of 3 percent over the same poll conducted in May 2006. Some 83 percent agreed with the statement that "securing our borders should be our top priority, but fair and humane treatment foreign workers is also very important." And 64 percent disagreed with the statement that "people who enter the United States illegally to seek work are no better than common criminals."

These are not radical, pro-immigrant rights opinions, but they are in contrast to the vitriolic political atmosphere stoked by state legislators, right-wing radio hosts and Minutemen vigilantes--and they exist despite the absence of a strong immigrant rights movement.

In other words, even in the nastiest of anti-immigrant environments, the opening exists to revive activism and turn back these vindictive laws and initiatives.