PHOENIX — David Montenegro worked part-time restaurant jobs and took advantage of Arizona's lower in-state tuition as he labored through years of college. Now a senior with the goal of becoming a teacher nearly in sight, the 29-year-old Mexico-born immigrant who arrived in the U.S. at age 11 faces a new hurdle.
Montenegro and more than 2,300 public college students around Arizona with deferred deportation status will have to pay thousands more for school in the fall under a state Supreme Court decision that deemed them ineligible for in-state tuition. Suddenly, they are scrambling to piece together private funding to continue their studies.
Students in the U.S. illegally cannot get federal funding, but there are private scholarships such as TheDream.US and Golden Doors Scholars for students covered by the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA. Youths in the program are sometimes referred to as "Dreamers" for the DREAM Act, never-passed legislation that opponents say would reward people for breaking the law and encourage illegal immigration.
Montenegro said Arizona State University counselors helped him find modest funding from donors to finish his last year, and "I should be able to do it."
But he and others said they fear a growing anti-immigrant bias in the U.S. under President Donald Trump, who has made tough immigration policies a key focus.
"It's upsetting to know there are people out there trying to make our lives impossible," Montenegro said.
Vasthy Lamadrid, another DACA recipient in ASU's teaching program, acknowledged experiencing "a lot of anxiety and stress" after the decision. "Some students are freaking out, wondering if they need to move out of state or find other funding," the 22-year-old added.
The Arizona Attorney General's Office sued the Maricopa Community College District in 2013, saying that extending in-state tuition to DACA recipients violated a 2006 voter initiative that requires people to have lawful immigration status to get public benefits.
The state Supreme Court ruled in April that state and federal law do not allow DACA recipients to get Arizona's in-state tuition because they are not lawfully present in the U.S.
Although federal law does not prevent unauthorized immigrants from attending public universities, state laws vary on whether those who graduated from state high schools get in-state tuition rates. The National Conference of State Legislatures says 20 states offer in-state tuition to unauthorized immigrants — 16 of them through legislative action in places including California, Kansas and New York. In Hawaii, Michigan, Oklahoma and Rhode Island, the lower rate is granted through the state university systems.
In New Mexico, Western New Mexico University has used social media to woo high-achieving immigrants, extending in-state tuition to DACA recipients from Arizona, Colorado and El Paso, Texas.
But Georgia considers students covered by DACA ineligible for in-state tuition, a policy explored in "The Unafraid," a new documentary taking its name from an activist chant, "Undocumented! Unafraid!" Screening next month at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York, the movie follows three DACA recipients in Georgia hoping to go to college.
Their challenges are similar to those now faced by Arizona DACA recipients, who mostly come from lower-income families and often don't graduate until they are in their mid-20s or older because they can pay for a only class or two at a time.
The annual tuition for an estimated 300 DACA recipients at Arizona's three public universities will rise from about $10,000 to $15,000 under a policy of charging non-citizen residents 150 percent of in-state tuition. Some 2,000 students with DACA status at the Maricopa County Community College District, the largest in Arizona and among the biggest in the U.S., will see annual costs for a full-time course load jump from about $2,580 to $8,900.
Some students are finding a friendlier and more affordable education at private schools such as Arizona's Prescott College, which has actively recruited DACA recipients including 19-year-old freshman Itzel Rios Soto, who was 6 when she was brought here from Mexico.
"When I got a scholarship, I broke down crying because it was the answer to my family's prayers," said Rios, whose tuition at the small liberal arts school is covered by its Freedom Education Fund, which students pay for with a $30 fee each semester. She's the first in her family to attend college.
After the court decision, Prescott College announced it would match Arizona state universities' resident tuition rates for immigrants in the country illegally.
"They were brought here involuntarily, and this is the only country they know," college President John Flicker said then. "Our state and our nation will be better if we educate them, not force them into the shadows."
The DACA students graduating from the Jesuit-run Brophy Preparatory Academy in Phoenix this month decided against college in Arizona because of insufficient funding for immigrant students, said Kathy Mabry, the school's communications director. Instead, they're going to out-of-state Catholic universities or other private schools such as the University of Southern California and Emerson College in Boston.
"With a college preparatory education that has given them solid academic footing, and a team of dedicated college counselors guiding them, I believe Brophy's Dreamers have been well-prepared to find other resources," Mabry said.
Graduating 17-year-old Nelson Martinez said his activism supporting fellow DACA students helped him get a full scholarship to College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts.
Because of his family's modest income, "paying full tuition at a state school was never a possibility," he said.