PHOENIX — Undocumented Arizona residents would be allowed to pay in-state tuition under a measure approved by the Republican-led state Senate last week. The measure — to repeal a law that denied undocumented residents that tuition break — is surprising enough in a state that has become notorious for its hostility toward immigrants, but even more surprising is that a Republican introduced the measure, another co-sponsored it and a third one broke away from the party majority to vote for it, guaranteeing its Senate passage. Now the bill moves to the Republican-controlled House; passage there would put the repeal before Arizona voters in 2022.

Ending the ban would make an enormous difference in the lives of countless young people. Approximately 2,000 undocumented students graduate from Arizona high schools annually. They each must pay one-and-a-half times the cost of in-state tuition at state universities, under a special provision approved by the Board of Regents in 2019, or the same price charged to out-of-state students at community colleges.

Arizona would join about two dozen states, including California, Illinois and New York, that allow — either through legislative action or state-university policy — undocumented students to pay in-state tuition. Given that the far-right wing of the Arizona Republican Party has wooed voters for years by promoting a politics of exclusion, the backing by at least some GOP members of the tuition measure is a remarkable development.

It’s true that Arizona chose a Democratic presidential candidate in 2020 for only the second time since Harry S. Truman, signaling an ideological shift in a place where Latinos and others commonly referred to as “minorities” are predicted to become the majority by 2030. But this is still a state whose Republican Party is chaired by someone who has propagated the myth of a stolen 2020 election, and the sole state with an English-only law governing education in public schools.

The law forcing undocumented students to pay a higher tuition rate is a product of fear and opportunism. In 2006, amid rising apprehensions at the border, 71 percent of Arizona voters approved the ban as part of Proposition 300, a broader measure that also barred unauthorized immigrants from using state-funded services such as child care and adult education. The idea behind the law and others: make Arizona so inhospitable to unauthorized immigrants that they would avoid the state or leave it.

Does it really make sense to drive away undocumented young people who want to go to college?

The economic argument for encouraging college enrollment is clear: College degrees yield lifetime earnings that are up to $900,000 greater than for people holding only high school degrees, according to an analysis by the Social Security Administration. Removing barriers to higher education is an investment in the future.

Paul Boyer, the Republican state senator who introduced the tuition measure, and his Republican colleague and the bill’s co-sponsor, T.J. Shope Jr., add another argument for taking the step: common sense.

“I just want to do right by these kids,” Boyer told me. “They were brought here through no fault of their own. And I just put myself in their shoes. I mean, if I was brought here and grew up here, as far as I know, I’m an American citizen, even though I’m not, you know, legally an American citizen.”

There is something else, though. Immigrants and their children are familiar to Boyer and Shope. They are their neighbors. They’re the people who worshiped in the Baptist church where Boyer’s father preached in South Phoenix, a Hispanic enclave. They’re the customers who patronize a grocery store owned by Shope’s family in Coolidge, a farming community.

They’re also the undocumented high school students who have shown up at their Senate offices to advocate for themselves, unbowed even as the legal status of these young people known as “dreamers” in the United States is still stuck in Washington’s gridlock over immigration reform.

Even if the tuition measure passes the House and is approved by voters in 2022, the rest of Proposition 300 would remain intact — to the consternation of many Democrats, who have long pushed for its full repeal. One of them is state Sen. Martín Quezada, who tried to amend the tuition bill when it came up for a vote on the Senate floor, saying that if Proposition 300 passed as a package in 2006, it should be revoked as a package. His amendment failed, though, and in the end, Quezada voted to approve the tuition measure anyway.

Joseph Garcia is the vice president of public policy at the civil rights group Chicanos Por La Causa, which, among many other things, provides financial assistance to college-bound students in Arizona, regardless of immigration status. After the Senate vote, he told me, “If we can win a battle in route to eventually winning the war, then let’s do that. We’ve already lost time and perhaps lost a generation. We can’t afford to do that anymore.”

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