As the United States fights the novel coronavirus pandemic, students around the country have been forced to balance surviving a global crisis and navigating a world in which remote learning raises more questions than answers. Many have been forced to vacate the college campuses they called home, and may now be juggling coursework with family responsibilities, unstable or unsafe home environments, and a significant loss of income and resources.
The CARES Act, which Congress passed on March 27, included students as beneficiaries of its $2 trillion price tag: Specifically, the bill set aside $6 billion, or 0.3 percent of the pot, for higher education students — and the bill says nothing about students' documentation status. "An institution of higher education may reserve any amount of an institution’s allocation ... for a fiscal year to award ... emergency financial aid grants to assist undergraduate or graduate students for unexpected expenses and unmet financial need as the result of a qualifying emergency," the text reads. But a new mandate under Education Secretary Betsy DeVos now bars undocumented students and non-permanent residents from the assistance they may need.
As POLITICO first reported, the Department of Education released new guidelines for funding eligibility on Tuesday (April 21) that restrict emergency funding to "students who are or could be eligible to participate in programs under Section 484 in Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended (HEA)," which broadly means only students who can apply for the Free Application For Federal Student Aid (FAFSA); notably, the CARES Act does not once mention FAFSA or any related criteria. "The criteria to participate in programs under Section 484 of the HEA include but are not limited to the following: U.S. citizenship or eligible noncitizen; a valid Social Security number; registration with Selective Service (if the student is male); and a high school diploma, GED, or completion of high school in an approved homeschool setting," the guideline says.
In a statement provided to Politico, Education Department spokesperson Liz Hill said, "The CARES Act makes clear that this taxpayer-funded relief fund should be targeted to U.S. citizens, which is consistently echoed throughout the law." The Act mentions citizenship insofar as stipulating which individuals are eligible for the one-time $1,200 checks, and that only people with "nonresident alien" status are not eligible. That includes undocumented people, who are more likely to be in need at this time.
The immigration advocacy group United We Dream called the new provision "callous" and called for reform in future relief packages. "Colleges and universities must find ways to allocate funds to assist their undocumented students as they deal with the ramifications of COVID-19," Advocacy Director Sanaa Abrar said. "Every single relief package being discussed in Congress, must include both the health care and financial assistance immigrant communities need, especially as the Trump administration continues to attack and scapegoat our communities amidst a pandemic."
According to an April report by New American Economy, an estimated 454,000 students currently attending U.S. colleges and universities are undocumented. These numbers can be hard to parse because many students fear that disclosing their status could result in detention or deportation. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program protects an estimated 700,000 young people; the Supreme Court is currently deliberating a case that could significantly impact protections for those young people.
"DACA allows me to work, and with a health crisis and the uncertainty of an upcoming DACA Supreme Court ruling, my family could lose their only source of income," Luz Chavez Gonzales, a DACA recipient and a student at Trinity Washington University, said via United We Dream. "Congress gave these funds to colleges and universities to help students like me and help alleviate some of these stressors, but time and time again this administration has proven their callousness for the undocumented community. It’s important for colleges and universities to step in where the federal government has failed us by committing to help all students, regardless of immigration status."