Trump and DeVos Target Dreamers by Denying Access to Coronavirus Relief Fund for College Students

When it passed the CARES Act to provide coronavirus relief, Congress included funds to be used by colleges and universities for emergency grants to help students whose lives were disrupted when the schools were shut down without warning. Although Congress provided considerable latitude by leaving it up to the schools to identify the students most in need, Betsy DeVos and the U.S. Department of Education have now set guidelines for the allocation of the funds. Dreamers cannot qualify.

The NY Times’ Erica Green explains: “The funding is part of $12.6 billion allocated directly to colleges and universities under Congress’s $2 trillion coronavirus stabilization law to help them recoup financial damages caused by the pandemic. Half of those funds are supposed to go directly to students affected by campus closures. In the coming weeks, schools are expected to award emergency relief grants to students to pay for expenses like food, housing, child care and technology. The stimulus law, called the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, directs the secretary to distribute the stimulus funding to colleges in the same manner the department distributes other financial aid. But it did not explicitly define which students are eligible. Undocumented students do not qualify for federal financial aid funds, but the emergency grants do not fall under that category.”

Despite that Congress left latitude for colleges and universities to award funds to the students their staffs deem most in need, on Tuesday, Betsy DeVos provided specific guidance about how colleges and universities can allocate the funds.  Green explains: “Education Secretary Betsy DeVos ordered higher education institutions to dole out more than $6 billion in emergency relief only to students who are eligible for federal financial aid, including U.S. citizens or legal residents. The directive effectively excluded tens of thousands of students who are living in the United States under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA program, an Obama-era policy that protects hundreds of thousands of immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children.”

The Washington Post‘s Daniel Douglas-Gabriel reports that more than a million college students will be denied help, including Dreamers and international students: “Collectively, that is at least 1.5 million college students, according to the latest available data.  And that is not accounting for others who could be left in the lurch because of the way the guidance is written.”

Dreamers are young people who were brought as infants and toddlers to the United States by their undocumented parents. They have lived their entire lives in the United States and graduated from our public schools. Many of them have little familiarity with the the countries where they were born; most speak English as their primary language.  Attending college has been difficult for Dreamers for decades.  A growing number of states over recent years have allowed these students to pay in-state tuition at state universities and to qualify for state college scholarships, but some states continue to deny these students the right to in-state tuition and scholarships. Dreamers, many of whom have completed college, are living and working in communities across the United States. They pay taxes and contribute to the economy and in myriad ways to our society.

Under a provision of the 1996 welfare reform law, the federal government has denied Dreamers access to Pell Grants and  federal college loans. Douglas-Gabriel reports: “Higher-education leaders and advocacy groups had hoped the broad language of the CARES Act provision left open a window for colleges to help undocumented students receiving immigration benefits under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals…. Despite a 1996 welfare-overhaul law barring such students from federal assistance, some thought the provision in the stimulus law could supersede the prohibition.”

Douglas Gabriel quotes Sara Goldrick-Rab, professor of higher education policy at Temple University, criticizing DeVos’s action because grants for vulnerable students under the CARES Act are not the same as federal financial aid: “The authorizing legislation and the certification agreement clarify that this is not Title IV aid… But that didn’t stop Education Secretary Betsy DeVos from waiting until the last minute and then unnecessarily excluding some of the most vulnerable individuals from this support. It is nothing short of cruel and unnecessary.”

Dreamers are particularly vulnerable right now because the fate of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) is in question.  Douglas-Gabriel reminds us: “President Trump has moved to end the program, but that effort is awaiting Supreme Court review.”

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