PHOENIX — A former Arizona lawmaker known as the driving force behind most of the state's toughest immigration laws is moving to challenge the university system for temporarily allowing young immigrants protected from deportation to keep paying lower-cost in-state tuition.
It comes after a court ruled that students in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program must pay higher-cost out-of-state tuition. The Arizona Board of Regents, which oversees three public universities and other colleges, voted soon afterward to allow in-state costs to stand while the issue is under court review.
The court decision last month sets Arizona apart from other states that are granting in-state tuition to young immigrants in recipients of former President Barack Obama's program. That includes Republican-dominant states such as Oklahoma, Tennessee and Nebraska.
The Trump administration has stepped up immigration enforcement and says it has not decided the program's fate.
Russell Pearce, a former state Senate president who helped create the landmark 2010 immigration enforcement law SB1070, said Wednesday that different law prohibits benefits for anyone living here illegally.
"I come here from Idaho or Utah or Texas and you have to pay out of state tuition but I'm in the country illegally and I don't?" Pearce said. "It's crazy it doesn't make sense and it's a violation of the Constitution."
Pearce sent a letter Tuesday to state Attorney General Mark Brnovich, giving him 60 days to sue the Board of Regents over its decision before threatening to take legal action himself.
The attorney general's office didn't immediately return a request for comment.
Arizona State University student and DACA recipient Edder Diaz Martinez said that without paying in-state tuition, he would only be able to afford one class per semester, potentially setting him back years before he could complete his senior year of college.
"The initial feeling was, of course, frustration because this is something that we have fought for for a very long time and we had victories — positive results at lower courts and we now are having setbacks," said Diaz Martinez, 26, who works full time to pay his tuition.
The Arizona Court of Appeals overturned a 2015 decision by a lower-court judge saying DACA recipients were considered legally present in the U.S. under federal immigration laws and therefore qualified for state benefits.
The Maricopa County Community College District board said it will ask the Arizona Supreme Court to overturn the ruling.
Pearce was known as the most full-throated advocate for tougher immigration enforcement during his more than 10 years as a state senator.
He was the chief sponsor of the contentious immigration law SB 1070 requiring police officers, when enforcing other laws, to question the immigration status of those suspected of being in the country illegally.
He also wrote laws that barred employers from hiring people in the United States illegally, denied bail to immigrants charged with certain crimes, declared English the state's official language and prohibited immigrants from being awarded punitive damages in lawsuits.
But Diaz Martinez said he is still feeling hopeful, calling Pearce's threat to sue "just an intimidation tactic."