DENVER - A Denver college's move to establish a special tuition rate for undocumented immigrant students has spiraled into a legal fight involving the state's attorney general, with school officials Wednesday standing by their position that their decision is legal.

The fight between Metropolitan State College of Denver officials and Republican Attorney General John Suthers emerges as President Barack Obama has spotlighted the immigration debate, issuing an order saying certain young undocumented immigrants will no longer face deportation.

Metro State earlier this month established for undocumented immigrants who meet specific requirements a tuition rate that is significantly lower than the nonresident rate.

Yolanda Ortega, right, gives a hug to Fanny Garcia after the Metropolitan State College of Denver Board of Trustees approved a new tuition rate for
Yolanda Ortega, right, gives a hug to Fanny Garcia after the Metropolitan State College of Denver Board of Trustees approved a new tuition rate for undocumented immigrant students on June 7. (Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

The move followed a failed legislative attempt from Colorado Democrats that would have established such a tuition tier at schools across the state.

Suthers responded Tuesday, saying Metro State's unilateral decision is "not supported by governing law." He said the tuition discount amounts to a "public benefit" that undocumented immigrants are not entitled to under state and federal laws.

The GOP has criticized Metro State's decision, and the chair of the budget-writing Joint Budget Committee, Republican Rep. Cheri Gerou, called college officials to a packed hearing room at the state Capitol to discuss their rationale.

Metro State President Stephen Jordan said after the meeting that he believes the college action is on solid legal ground.

"First of all, we haven't changed our position yet," he said. "Our position is what the board (of trustees) adopted. But we clearly have to take the attorney general's opinion into consideration and assess what does that mean."

Stephens said the college is also weighing how Obama's announcement last week impacts the decision they've made. Stephens said that under the president's decision, it's possible the students they would be serving could have legal status, potentially nullifying Suthers' argument that public benefits cannot be granted to undocumented immigrants.

The new tuition rate, which Metro State approved June 7, lets certain undocumented immigrants attend college at about $3,600 per semester. That's about half what they'd pay under the nonresident rate, but still higher than the resident rate.

To qualify, undocumentedl immigrants must have graduated from a Colorado high school after attending for at least three years and also state that they were seeking, or would seek, legal status.

Suthers said that, according to federal law, it is up to the Legislature to decide whether colleges can set discounted tuition rates for undocumented immigrants

Colorado Republican lawmakers this year rejected an attempt from Democrats to grant discounted tuition to undocumented immigrants who graduated from state high schools. The legislation would have made it optional for colleges to participate, but most higher education institutions supported the bill.

Suthers said colleges cannot act unilaterally on the issue. He issued the opinion at the request of the Colorado Community College System, which asked if colleges could do what Metro State did. CCCS supported this year's legislation.

Stephens told lawmakers their policy aligns with the college's mission to make education affordable to underserved students.

"We've often had this mantra of being an institution of opportunity," he said.

He said the college calculated the new rate for undocumented immigrants was not subsidized by state funds. But Republican Sen. Kent Lambert said it appears Suthers' legal opinion "would refute almost every point that you have made this afternoon."

Thirteen states, including California and Texas, have crafted and passed tuition legislation for undocumented immigrants and they have survived legal challenges.

Sarahi Hernandez, 19, would benefit from the new tuition rate. She's an undocumented immigrant attending Metro State and currently pays the out-of-state rate of nearly $8,000 per semester. Her family from the Mexican state of Durango brought her to the U.S. when she was 8 months old, she said.

"I do get a lot of support from my parents. I bake, I babysit, I do whatever I can to be able to get the money to go to school because it's my priority at this point," Hernandez said. "Unfortunately, I do know a lot of people that aren't as lucky and can't afford it."