Dreams of an affordable higher education are about to come true for some young illegal immigrants who live in Pima County.
Dozens of them cheered Wednesday night as Pima Community College's Governing Board agreed to steep tuition discounts for those who enroll in a new federal immigration program and can prove they've lived in the county for at least a year.
The change slashes the cost of a full-time college education from more than $9,000 to about $2,000 a year for such students. It is expected to take effect in time for the fall semester.
The higher rate is what nonresidents of Arizona must pay to attend PCC. Until now, the college also has charged illegal-immigrant students at the higher rate, even if they've lived in the state for years.
That left many unable to pursue a college degree on a full-time basis, if at all - no matter how well they had done in high school.
"This will change my life," said a beaming Ana Rodriguez, 20, after the vote witnessed by 150 or so people who packed the meeting.
Rodriguez, who came to Tucson from Nogales, Sonora, as an 8-year-old, told a story similar to many heard by PCC's board.
She graduated from Amphitheater High School in 2011 with a 4.3 grade-point average - equivalent to an A-plus - and was offered about $10,000 in scholarships to attend PCC full-time for two years. She couldn't accept because she lacked a Social Security number, she said.
Until now, part-time classes were all her family could afford, and at that rate, it would have taken five years to graduate from a two-year program. Many young illegal immigrants in that situation end up dropping out in frustration, she said.
Local educators were among those who urged the college's board to adopt the change.
"I truly believe this is a defining moment for our community," said Manuel Isquierdo, superintendent of the Sunnyside Unified School District.
He predicted lower drop-out rates and higher academic achievement in his district if college becomes more affordable for immigrant children.
Saul Ostroff, a career counselor for Pueblo Magnet High School in the Tucson Unified School District, said the whole county would benefit economically from having more educated workers paying higher taxes.
Wednesday's vote makes PCC the second community college district in Arizona to offer in-state tuition to young illegal immigrants covered by a federal program that offers them work permits and renewable, two-year reprieves from deportation.
Maricopa County's 10-college system was the first to adopt the approach. The state's three public universities, including the University of Arizona, are interpreting the law differently and do not give tuition discounts to such students.
The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, announced by the White House in June, aims to help those who entered the country before age 16. Candidates also must be in school or have a high school diploma or GED, have no felony convictions and meet a number of other requirements.
Immigrant advocates say Pima County is home to as many as 4,000 illegal-immigrant students, though it isn't clear how many qualify for the new federal program.
PCC's board voted 4-1 in favor of the change. Board member Scott Stewart, who cast the lone vote against the measure, said PCC should seek more information about the potential impact before agreeing to the move.
On StarNet: Find extensive coverage of immigration issues at azstarnet.com/border
"I truly believe this is a defining moment for our community."
Manuel Isquierdo, superintendent of the Sunnyside Unified School District
Contact reporter Carol Ann Alaimo at email@example.com or at 573-4138.