Undocumented College Students Prohibited From Accessing Emergency Relief

Undocumented Students Prohibited From Accessing Emergency Relief
Betsy DeVos announced that undocumented students will not be able to receive any of the $6 billion package for universities to provide relief for students whose lives and educations have been disrupted by the COVID-19 outbreak. Pictured: September 2017 DACA protest at the White House. (Victoria Pickering)

On April 9, the White House published a press release stating that $6 billion would be “immediately” distributed to universities to provide relief for students whose lives and educations have been disrupted by the COVID-19 outbreak.

However, over a week later, on April 20, Politico reported that less than 1 percent of said emergency cash grants have actually been distributed to universities.

This slowness and inaction is a result of yet another inadequately executed policy from the U.S. Education Department—which failed to provide a clear outline for how the money should be distributed to all universities and how colleges and universities should distribute said money in the forms of grants and awards. 

The money is intended to directly assist students in providing housing and food—but the process of doling out cash has created a political battle between university administrators and public officials as the government refuses to provide information on how colleges can best access and allocate this money to their students.

In response, Secretary Betsy DeVos’s Education Department has blamed colleges on refusing to fill out the form to collect the money—but even colleges that have submitted their paperwork have still not received any money from the Education Department. 

In the midst of this, DeVos on Tuesday announced that undocumented students are ineligible to receive any funding from the $6 billion package—in spite of the fact that current laws on emergency relief include no explicit restrictions on which students can receive emergency grants.

What students are eligible to receive emergency financial aid grants from the HEERF?

Only 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), may receive emergency financial aid grants. If a student has filed a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), then the student has demonstrated eligibility to participate in programs under Section 484 the HEA. Students who have not filed a FAFSA but who are eligible to file a FAFSA also may receive emergency financial aid grants. 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.

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The students most likely to be affected by this unlawful decision are members of the Obama-era Deferred Actions for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which was launched in 2012.

(Migration Policy Institute)

In September of 2017, the president announced the termination of DACA, but the courts have so far kept the program alive for those who currently have or have ever had DACA status.

To this date, DACA has assisted over 800,000 immigrant children in order for them to receive an education and access job security without putting them at risk of deportation. The future of DACA will be determined by the Supreme Court this summer. 

Undocumented Students Prohibited From Accessing Emergency Relief
A February 2018 prayer service for Dreamers in front of the Capitol. (Victoria Pickering)

This guidance from the Education Department is just another example of how the Trump administration continues to fail to support those in need of help. Many of the people most at risk of contracting COVID-19 are women, people of color and immigrants—who fill up more than half of the jobs considered “essential” at this point in time. 

As of April 20, at least five universities have been sued by students who argue that they deserve refunds on Spring 2020 tuition and financial assistance for food and housing in order to survive the pandemic. As a result of the inability of universities to support the needs of financially at-risk students, many throughout college campuses have begun to create department- and/or university-wide relief funds to assist students most in need of financial support.

At this moment in time—when DACA has not been ruled illegal by the courts and there is no law prohibiting undocumented students from receiving relief grants from universities and the government—this action by the U.S. Education Department speaks volumes about their lack of investment in the future generations of the American public. 

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Micaela Brinsley recently graduated from the Performance Studies department at NYU Tisch School of the Arts. Born and raised in Tokyo, Japan, she is a feminist theatre artist, activist and writer with a background in performance art and labor rights. Passionate about social justice, she is an avid conversationalist committed to making the world a more just place. She has been writing for Ms. since the summer of 2017. You can contact her at mbrinsley [at] msmagazine.com.