The White House on Tuesday blocked tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants and DACA recipients from getting billions of dollars in aid earmarked for college students affected by COVID-19.
It’s difficult to know how many people are affected by the Trump administration’s decision since exact figures are not kept on undocumented immigrants attending U.S. colleges. There are nearly 700,000 recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, making it likely that scores of students in the DACA ranks will be affected.
Officials are excluding a group of students who already face a steeper challenge in attending and finishing college – and whose legal status is in jeopardy pending a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
The students are barred from receiving the aid because it is intended for U.S. citizens, according to the Education Department. Undocumented immigrants and DACA recipients aren’t allowed to access federal financial aid and often must rely on personal finances or private donor money to cover their education.
Denis Alvarez, a DACA receipt and student at Arizona State University, said that money would have helped her and those in her group, the Undocumented Students for Education Equity, who struggle to balance classes while dealing with the economic fallout of the coronavirus. Still, being excluded from the federal government’s help is expected.
“I am not surprised to have been left out of this because we have been left out of so many things already,” she said.
Colleges have had to pivot to online instruction and face financial turmoil as they’re forced to refund housing costs. Students are struggling to adjust to the new online learning model while dealing with economic uncertainty.
A portion of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act was meant to address both of these concerns. Universities would get billions of dollars in aid, half of which they’re required to give to students economically affected by the coronavirus. The other half could be used to offset the institutions’ costs related to pivoting to online learning.
When Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced the release of $6.3 billion earmarked as emergency aid for students, she said colleges would have the discretion to distribute the money.
That rollout hasn’t been smooth, and most students haven’t seen that aid. Many universities told USA TODAY Network reporters this month they needed additional guidance from the Education Department before they started giving out that money.
Some colleges hoped they might be able to direct some of that money toward needy students who wouldn’t normally qualify for federal funding, said Ben Miller, vice president for post-secondary education at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank. The law distributing the relief funds, he said, hadn’t defined which students were eligible.
An Education Department spokeswoman, Angela Morabito, said the act is clear that “this taxpayer-funded relief fund should be targeted to U.S. citizens, which is consistently echoed throughout the law.”
Miller said needy students count toward a university’s total enrollment, a figure used to generate how much a college would be eligible to receive. Undocumented students and DACA recipients may have driven up an institution’s share of federal aid money, but they’re cut off from it.
Miller said he feared the additional regulations would result in universities creating more complicated application processes to ensure they comply with the rules. That could prolong the process of distributing the money.
Advocates said undocumented students and DACA recipients face many of the same financial strains as low-income students who are eligible for financial aid.
“They should have been eligible to receive these funds despite immigration status,” said Miriam Feldblum, executive director of the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education, an advocacy group of higher education leaders focused on immigration policy.
These students may have lost their jobs or need to take care of family members, she said. They may have trouble finding the right technology to access their online courses. The Education Department, she said, had an opportunity to ease some of these struggles, but it chose not to.
A familiar feeling for students
This year, the Supreme Court is likely to issue a decision on the future of the DACA policy and the nearly 700,000 who rely on it to avoid temporary deportation and to work in the country.
The Trump administration said it is in the country’s best interest to end the program. Federal courts in California and Texas challenged the decision, driving it to the Supreme Court.
Many of the people in DACA, no longer very young, are far from “angels.” Some are very tough, hardened criminals. President Obama said he had no legal right to sign order, but would anyway. If Supreme Court remedies with overturn, a deal will be made with Dems for them to stay!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 12, 2019
That looming decision is one of many things on Pedro Garcia’s mind. The 21-year-old is a student at North Park University in Chicago and a DACA recipient. Like many students, he has seen his life upended by the coronavirus. He had been living in the dorms, working as a resident adviser.
These days, he lives at home with his family. Six of them share three rooms, so it can be hard to find a quiet moment to complete his coursework. His family home didn’t have internet access, which he had to help set up.
He, like other DACA recipients, had to rely on family resources and private scholarships to pay for college. He said he is lucky to have a job as a campus security dispatcher and writing adviser. Even so, the relief money would have helped. Being ineligible for it evoked a familiar theme.
“It never felt that this administration was on our side,” he said.
Alvarez, the ASU student, said online classes have been a struggle, but she is grateful she has a private space to study, a job to pay the bills and a computer to take her classes. Not all of her peers, she said, are so lucky.
They were already paying out-of-state tuition, and many of them are out of jobs. Those that do have work risk catching the disease. She, like Garcia, worries about the Supreme Court decision. Their parents didn’t receive the coronavirus relief checks that many American families have.
The emergency federal aid, she said, would have helped students whose laptop chargers won’t work or those who can’t afford food, among other concerns. The coronavirus feels like another barrier to their education.
“This is already a community that doesn’t have a lot of funds to go to school in the first place,” she said. “It’s a feeling we have been having for a very long time.”
Education coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation does not provide editorial input.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: DACA, undocumented college students barred from emergency federal money