Undocumented College Students Need COVID-19 Relief Now

By Rosa M. García

COVID-19 has caused death, illness, life-changing disruptions, and layoffs for workers, students, and families with low incomes. This week unemployment claims surpassed 30 million. The COVID-19 virus has also disrupted the education of millions of college students, creating challenges for them and their families, particularly for students with low incomes, students of color, immigrants, and students impacted by the criminal justice system. As many institutions have either shut down or transitioned to online education, postsecondary students are having to deal with the costs and uncertainty associated with these disruptions. To be sure, these challenges have created another layer of economic insecurity for immigrant students who were already struggling to afford the cost of college and basic living expenses before the crisis. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients also face increased anxiety, as they await a SCOTUS decision that could further destabilize their lives.

Given the life-threatening circumstances of the pandemic, it is difficult to comprehend why Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos would exclude undocumented students from the $6.3 billion in emergency aid provided to colleges and universities in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. That bill gives institutions broad flexibility and discretion on how to best use these economic stimulus funds to support college students during this pandemic. In departmental guidance issued to colleges on April 9, DeVos indicated that “the CARES Act provides institutions with significant discretion on how to award this emergency assistance to students.” She added that an “institution may develop its own system and process for determining how to allocate these funds, which may include distributing the funds to all students or only to students who demonstrate significant need.” However, in an FAQ regarding emergency aid grants to students released later in the month, the department specified that only students eligible for federal aid under Title IV of the Higher Education Act could receive emergency aid provided through the CARES Act.

In contrast to the secretary’s guidance, federal lawmakers and advocates representing a broad range of organizations have pointed out that the CARES Act does not explicitly prohibit undocumented students from receiving this emergency funding. To be clear, this emergency aid was intended to help students who are experiencing COVID-related financial emergencies and disruptions cover the cost of their basic needs such as food, housing assistance, child care, health care, course materials, and technology—disaster relief that undocumented students need during this pandemic.

The department’s guidance to colleges clearly undermines the economic security of undocumented students and their families. Unfortunately, this misguided message comes at a time when immigrant students, their parents, and communities are experiencing job losses, layoffs, and financial hardships. Along with not having access to federal student aid, undocumented students have limited access to state-funded financial aid programs, despite being more likely to come from families with low incomes.

While we applaud those colleges and universities and higher education systems in states like California that are tapping into their own resources and using institutional funds to care for the basic needs of undocumented students during this pandemic, the Department of Education must honor the intention of Congress to serve all students. As such, CLASP is proud to stand with immigrant youth at United We DREAM and Representatives Lou Correa (CA), Raúl Grijalva (AZ), Pramila Jayapal (WA) and other members of Congress in urging the Department of Education to rescind its guidance to colleges regarding student eligibility for emergency aid. Instead, the department should encourage colleges to use their broad discretion to provide emergency aid to any students with low income who need it, regardless of their immigration status. Immigrant students need this critical emergency aid to succeed in school and to lead healthy lives during this crisis. Immigrant students and workers are critical to helping the nation fight and recover from the pandemic.

Along with urging the department to rescind its guidance immediately, we call on the administration to automatically extend work authorizations for DACA recipients. We also request that Congress address the unique needs of undocumented students and their families in future economic stimulus packages.