An Arizona nonprofit was honored here Tuesday for its push to win in-state tuition for undocumented students, a change that organizers said has moved the state from an “epicenter of hate toward immigrants into an epicenter of hope.”
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UnidosUS honored Aliento for its years of work that led to the passage last fall of Proposition 308, which grants undocumented students in Arizona the rights to in-state tuition, financial aid and other benefits that had been stripped away by voters in 2006.
Aliento founder Reyna Montoya beamed as she accepted the award Tuesday on behalf of the organization, but said she is more proud of the impact that Proposition 308 will have on undocumented students going forward.
“It’s been incredible because what it means is that we get to have a different conversation,” Montoya said. “I get to go to high schools now and don’t have to tell them. ‘Hey, you can still go to college, but you have to navigate all these (mazes) in order for you to make it.’”
Before presenting the public service award to Montoya, UnidosUS board member Maria Harper-Marinick praised Aliento’s advocacy work, which she said will change “the lives of about 2,000 students every single year and countless lives moving forward.”
“Because all the people at the Aliento, they know it takes discipline, it takes commitment, nothing happens overnight, and they demonstrate what conscious bravery really looks like,” she said.
Montoya said the passage of Proposition 308 has been years in the making. It took three legislative sessions to get enough support to put the issue on last fall’s ballot.
“We were told wait, wait, and wait. And we decided not to only be the storytellers but the strategist of our lives,” she said. “And we said we were going to write that bill, we’re not going to take no for an answer and we’re going to have the courage to lean in and invite others to join us.”
The proposition reversed part of a 2006 law – Proposition 300, also passed by voters – that denied in-state tuition along with a range of other benefits to undocumented residents of the state.
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Proposition 308 allows “Dreamers” – undocumented residents who were brought to the U.S. as children – to get financial aid and qualify for in-state tuition at the state’s universities if they got their diploma from an Arizona high school. Such students would have had to spend at least two years in school in the state.
Montoya said she cried and hugged her “students” when Proposition 308 passed by with 51.24% of the vote, a sharp turnaround from the 71% of voters who backed Proposition 300 just 16 years before.
Advocates said they started their campaign in 2018, lobbying state legislators, soliciting advice from private attorneys, and roping in a variety of groups to promote the proposition and educate the public. Those groups included both Democrat and Republican leaders, advocates from the Latter-day Saints, Catholic schools, education nonprofits, as well as citizen college students who grew up with Dreamers.
Tyler Montague, the chairman of Yes on 308, considers himself a “lifelong Republican” and said that breaking down the proposition to voters was essential in gathering support.
“When people are confused, they just vote no,” Montague said. “So that’s why we had to spend all the money to go out say, ‘No, this is just treating the Dreamer kids the same. That’s what this is, that’s all it is, not giving anything away, nothing special.’”
Montoya said at the ceremony that Aliento did not “care if you bleed blue or red, but if you’re with our people, we’ll be with you.”
Gaby Pacheco, program director at TheDream.US, said she has worked with Montoya and Aliento Vice President Jose Patiño for years. She said that ability to bring together people of different backgrounds helped make Aliento “the heart and soul” of the Proposition 308 campaign.
“They are an organization that is all about the end results, and it’s not necessarily like a political organization,” Pacheco said. “A lot of the immigrant-rights organizations and even local organizations, they do tend to be a little bit more political. And when they’re more political, then they lose the ability to work across the aisle.”
Patiño, who did not travel to Washington for the award, called the recognition the “cherry on top” of the successful campaign.
“Awards are nice and recognitions are nice, but for me, it’s like you do the work because it sounds cliché, but it’s the right thing to do,” Patiño said. “You get the policy change and you are helping individuals pursue their … educational goals, and you hopefully are creating a more inclusive society. So that’s the win.”
Education Forward Arizona President Rich Nickel said the law is a milestone for Arizona politics and education, but it is only a step toward progress.
“Although we’re celebrating that victory, a lot of us are kind of on to how do we continue to help all students be successful, better in our schools?” Nickel said. “And so there’s still a lot more work to do here, for both these students and for all of our students in Arizona.”
Patiño said drafting Prop 308 was an exciting, validating experience that provided valuable lessons for Aliento as it moves forward on other issues.
Montoya said when she founded Aliento, she never expected to pass a law that would get national recognition. But she and Pacheco agreed that the campaign for Proposition 308 will change Arizona’s reputation and should be an encouraging sign to immigrant communities across the country.
“Let it be remembered that in a Republican state with a Republican legislature, people across political parties came together and said no waiting, no more,” Montoya said at Tuesday’s ceremony. “So I invite you to don’t take a no for an answer, be courageous and have the courage to face the truth as we continue to build for healing and reconciliation.”