Actions Last Week Extend the Student Loan Debt Cliff and Protect DACA

There is a lot to worry about right now—an unhinged President who has given up governing, a divided Congress, a raging pandemic, and, so far at least, Congressional failure to pass an economic relief bill as the COVID-19 recession intensifies.

Two developments last week should, however, be seen as hopeful. Both will protect vulnerable young people through the Presidential transition and into the Biden administration, when it is expected that policies will be revised.

Student Loan Debt Cliff Extended until January 31st to Protect 41 Million Borrowers

Last Friday, Betsy DeVos extended a COVID-19 moratorium on the collection of student loan payments, a moratorium that had been expected to expire on New Years Eve. The moratorium on student loan payments began with the CARES Act and last summer had been extended by President Trump’s executive order until December 31.

Politico‘s Michael Stratford reports: “The Trump administration on Friday granted an extra month of student loan relief to the 41 million Americans who have been benefiting from a freeze on monthly payments and interest that was set to expire at the end of the year. The relief was set to expire on Dec. 31, but will now end on January 31. The last-minute extension averts what could have been a potentially chaotic resumption of payments just weeks before President-elect Joe Biden takes office…  Roughly 33 million of those borrowers have had their payments paused, and the Education Department has stopped seeking to collect from the 8 million other borrowers who were in default.”

Back in November, Stratford warned about the chaos that would happen in January if the Trump administration had failed to extend the loan payment freeze: “Biden could waive his own executive wand once inaugurated… The intervening weeks of limbo (if the Trump administration had failed to extend the deadline) could cause mass confusion and uncertainty for borrowers.  For the incoming president, the economic and administrative mess could (have taken) months to untangle, consuming the early days of his Education Department.”

Federal Court Orders the Restoration of the DACA Program

Last Friday, a federal judge ordered the Trump administration to restore the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program to its original form as established by President Barack Obama by executive order in 2012.  The Trump administration has made several efforts to destroy the program which offers protection for adults who were brought as children illegally to the United States by their immigrant parents.

These children, known as Dreamers, have grown up in the United States with their right to public education protected by the U.S. Supreme Court in Plyler v. Doe in 1982.  After high school, however, they have too often been denied college scholarships and even in-state tuition along with protection from deportation and any path to citizenship. DACA does not offer a path to citizenship for these young people, but it provides at least minimal protections—a two year (renewable) promise of deferral of deportation, eligibility to apply for a work permit, and in some state the right to qualify for a drivers license.

In a press release on Friday, The National Immigration Law Center (NILC) announced last week’s federal court decision: “Today, in the Batalla Vidal v. Wolf lawsuit, a federal court ordered the Trump administration to restore Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) to its 2012 original form—reopening DACA to first-time applicants, restoring work authorization and renewals to two years, and making travel on advance parole more widely available to DACA recipients”

The new decision rests on the fact that Chad Wolf, who last summer issued a memo restricting the program, had never been confirmed as Acting Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. NICL explains: “This decision follows the court’s finding that the July memo issued by Chad Wolf, who claimed to be the acting secretary of Homeland Security, was issued without legal authority because he was unlawfully appointed. In addition, the court had also granted the plaintiffs’ request to be certified as the representatives of a nationwide class of approximately one million DACA-eligible individuals across the country.”

NILC provides a brief history of the Trump administration’s most recent attempt to destroy the DACA program: “After the U.S. Supreme Court in June (2020) struck down the Trump administration’s unlawful attempt to terminate DACA, another federal court in Maryland ordered the government to restore DACA to its original terms. Instead, Chad Wolf, purportedly serving as the acting secretary of Homeland Security, issued a memorandum in July prohibiting first-time DACA applications, cutting renewals from two years to one, and drastically curtailing the ability of DACA recipients to travel abroad….  In August, DACA-eligible youth, first-time applicants, and DACA recipients filed a legal challenge against the July 2020 memo.”

The NY TimesCaitlin Dickerson and Michael D. Shear explain that DACA currently protects over 800,000 people, but that, “As many as 300,000 new applicants could now be eligible, according to the lawyers who pushed for the reinstatement.” Applicants must have a high school diploma or a G.E.D. or have served in the military, and they must not have a criminal record.  Dickerson and Shear explain that the DACA program affects far more people than the individuals who are granted protection: “The program has had generational impact. Researchers estimate that 250,000 U.S.-born children have at least one parent who is enrolled in DACA, and that 1.5 million people in the United States live with a beneficiary of the program.”

Last week’s decision may, of course, be appealed, but it keeps the Dreamers’ cause alive and serves to remind us all of the cruelty of the Trump administration’s immigration policy.

Dickerson and Shear report that Dreamers and their advocates  look to expanded protection under the Biden administration: “President-elect Joseph R. Biden, Jr. has vowed to restore the DACA program when he takes office, but a legislative solution that would permanently allow the Dreamers to live and work legally in the United States remains elusive, leaving their fates to the shifting political winds in Washington… But Mr. Biden is certain to face intense pressure from immigrant groups to fight for a broad overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws that would take care of the Dreamers and millions of other undocumented immigrants.”