In the midterm elections, the best evidence of Arizona’s move toward political moderation wasn’t voters’ rejection of a far-right, divisive Republican running for governor. Or, in the race for secretary of state, the victory by an unexciting Democrat over a fiery extremist who disparaged the electoral process’s reliability — a process he would have overseen if elected.
The best evidence of Arizona’s shift away from Republican policies was the passage of a ballot measure reinstating the right of undocumented Arizonans to pay in-state tuition at public colleges and universities.
At 2.48 percentage points, the margin of victory for “yes” on Proposition 308 was bigger than the margin that secured the governor’s seat for Democrat Katie Hobbs over Kari Lake and broke 13 years of Republican dominance in Arizona.
The proposition’s passage offers a lesson in skilled political maneuvering, grass-roots organizing and persistence. Behind it are millennials and Gen-Zers who are either here without immigration papers or have only temporary protection from deportation under the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA.
To understand how the proposition’s passage happened, we have to go back to 2010, when Reyna Montoya and Jose Patiño met at a gathering of undocumented students at Arizona State University.
Senate Bill 1070, Arizona’s infamous anti-immigrant legislation, had just been signed into law. Joe Arpaio, then sheriff of the state’s most populous county, Maricopa, was ramping up his campaign against undocumented immigrants at traffic stops and in raids that were later ruled illegal for targeting them.
There was also added financial pressure from a ballot measure approved four years earlier by almost 3 in 4 Arizona voters that stripped unauthorized immigrants from accessing any public benefit, including in-state tuition.
“Everybody was afraid,” Montoya told me this week.
The group that hosted the meeting eventually became the Arizona Dream Act Coalition, a driving force behind the push for citizenship for all unauthorized immigrants nationwide. Montoya founded Aliento, an organization to support young immigrants in telling their stories and countering prejudice.
She and Patiño, her partner and Aliento’s vice president of education and external affairs, set their eyes on reversing the in-state tuition ban, which had made college three times more expensive, putting it out of reach for many undocumented students such as her. (Montoya was fortunate to receive one of the few private scholarships available to undocumented students.)
Since 2018, she has trained and mobilized hundreds of students to lobby for support in annual trips to the Capitol, bringing legislators face to face with some of the very people whom in-state tuition would benefit.
Patiño, meanwhile, drafted several versions of the proposition. This year, finally, lawyers shaped his words into what voters saw on the midterm ballot.
“No one could know we were behind it,” Montoya said. “It’s not only who drafts a measure, but also who vets it and who is the messenger. We weren’t the right messengers.”
So they secured the support of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce. “Republicans trust the Chamber of Commerce,” she said.
A similar attempt to give voters a chance to end the in-state tuition ban had failed more than once before for lack of support among Republican leadership in the state legislature.
This time, Montoya said, opposition came from some progressive organizers who wanted her and Patiño to wait until 2024, in hopes the proposition would drive turnout among young voters in a key presidential election year.
Some Democratic legislators also resisted, saying the focus should be on extending all public benefits to undocumented immigrants, not just the same tuition rate paid by U.S. citizens and legal residents.
“We kept seeing defeat after defeat, and it never made sense to me. Why do we keep losing?” Montoya said. “But every loss, every bit of resistance, taught us a lesson.”
One of these lessons, she said, was to build bipartisan support among moderate Republicans who understood the significance of expanding educational opportunities to a rising generation of Latinos.
One of their key allies was Tyler Montague, a Republican strategist who was behind the successful 2011 campaign to recall Russell Pearce, a state senator who was a proponent of the SB 1070 anti-immigrant legislation.
Montague, chairman of the “Yes on 308” campaign, credits its success this month to the rise of the state’s Latino population and transplants from “blue states” who have moved there in recent years. “Arizona,” he told me, “is changing.” Maybe one day even Kari Lake, who has refused to concede losing the governor’s race, will face up to that reality.