The Arizona Board of Regents will start the process next month to see if there are ways that some illegal immigrant "dreamers'' can qualify for lower tuition than they now have to pay.
A 2006 voter-approved measure spells out that anyone who is not a citizen or legal resident who wants to attend a state university must pay the higher out-of-state tuition. Rick Myers, the board's chairman, said that has pretty much tied the hands of universities.
But Myers said last year's decision by the Obama administration to grant "deferred action'' to some illegal immigrants may provide a legal basis for the board to decide that these students can qualify for some rate higher than resident tuition but less than what those from other states are charged.
"I know there's a desire on the board to offer education to as many people who graduate from our schools as possible,'' Myers said.
Gov. Jan Brewer, who sits on the board, will not block the move.
"The governor recognizes the president has caused a lot of confusion with his unilateral executive action regarding this population,'' said gubernatorial press aide Matthew Benson. "It's understandable that the regents may want to study this issue further.''
The move comes as the Regents are scheduled to set tuition next month at the state's three universities.
All of the schools have proposed what they say are small increases, in the area of 3 to 5 percent.
But there is a sharp disparity between what is charged to residents versus others.
For example, the University of Arizona proposed non-resident tuition and fees for undergraduates next year is $27,073. That is what now has to be paid by anyone without legal status.
Residents would be charged just $10,391.
The 2006 law, approved by a 2-1 margin, says those who are not citizens and "without lawful immigration status'' cannot be classified as in-state students, even if they meet all other residency requirements.
Myers said he reads that law to make in-state tuition legally off limits to those who have deferred action status. He said, though, there now may be some legal basis for something in between.
"Clearly, we're not going to do anything that's not in concert with Arizona law or the federal law,'' Myers said.
But he pointed out that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has released documents detailing what it sees as the legal standing of those who qualify. And one of them specifically says that anyone approved for the program "is authorized by the Department of Homeland Security to be present in the United States.''
Myers said board members want staffers to "dig into'' those federal memos.
"What does that open up in terms of flexibility within the law,'' he asked.
The federal program, formally known as "Deferred Action Childhood Arrival,'' entitles those who were brought here before age 18 and not yet 30 as of last year's announcement date to remain without fear of deportation if they meet certain other qualifications. Those approved for the program also would be allowed to work in this country legally.
There are estimates that possibly 80,000 Arizonans could qualify.
Myers said the USCIS memo, issued in January, provided some "clarity'' to the question of their status.
The action comes as Brewer is fighting a lawsuit in federal court over the question of whether those granted deferred action status are entitled to have state-issued licenses to drive.
Legally speaking, the issues are unrelated. In fact, the Arizona law requiring those wanting a driver's license to prove the person's presence in the United States "is authorized under federal law'' predates the tuition law by a full decade.