US Department of Education Removes Restrictions on Emergency Relief Funds for Undocumented Students

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Over a year after the onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic, undocumented students can finally see some much-needed relief from the financial and logistical upheaval it caused. Last week, the U.S. Department of Education (ED), now headed by Secretary Miguel Cardona, issued a rule allowing all students, no matter what their immigration status, access to COVID-19 –related higher education emergency relief funds 

“In effect, undocumented, DACAmented, or TPS holders who were enrolled at an eligible institution during March 2020 now have access to the one-time emergency funds,” explains UnidosUS Education Policy Analyst Amanda Martinez, noting that the majority of the 427,000 undocumented youth enrolled in today’s U.S. higher education institutions are Latino.   

The first Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, signed into law on March 27, 2020, included $6 billion in emergency relief to college students experiencing disruptions to cover a range of expenses including, food, housing, health care, technology, and course materials, and made no mention of exclusions for any students. But then in April 2020, then Secretary DeVos ruled to restrict that funding to just citizens and permanent legal residents.  

UnidosUS was quick to push back, noting that undocumented students face greater barriers to accessing health care and employment due to their immigration status.Theyare also more likely to pay higher rates of tuition and work to help pay for college.On average, undocumented students who pay out-of-state tuition have to work more than 35 hours a week to cover college expenses, while those with in-state tuition work about 23 hours a week.   

In an effort to spread the word on the removal of COVID-19 relief restrictions, ED released a FAQ document stating that all students who are or were enrolled in an institution of higher education during the COVID-19 national emergency are eligible for emergency financial aid grants from the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEEFR), “regardless of whether they completed a FAFSA or are eligible for Title IV. That includes citizens, permanent residents, refugees, asylum seekers, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) recipients, other DREAMers, and similar undocumented students.”  

 Here’s what an emergency grant can help cover for students: 

  • A new $36 billion is heading to institutions provided through the American Rescue Plan. Students now eligible for HEERF funds should feel empowered by ED’s announcement and contact their college’s financial aid office to receive funds.  
  • Most students should now qualify to receive an emergency grant, as long as they were enrolled in college or university on or after March 13, 2020 
  • Any emergency costs that arose due to the coronavirus pandemic which can include tuition, food, housing, transportation, health care, or child care. 

Since the passage of CARES, Congress made it clear undocumented college students had a right to the one-time COVID-19 emergency grants. Yet, DeVos making use of her position of authority in one stroke systematically excluded an entire student group solely based on their immigration status, turning a blind eye to the tuition they pay, contributions they make to their colleges and universities, and challenges they face as equal providers to their families,” says Martinez. “While the announcement by the Department of Education officially affirmed undocumented college student’s right to emergency grant aid, this righting of a wrong should’ve never had to been fought. Let’s call it what it was, this action will be remembered as a prime example of how systemic racism and discrimination is empowered through policy decision making, even at the agency level.  

But she noted that the announcement should be equally celebrated. The guaranteed relief may finally provide Latino students with the additional resources needed to overcome hardships they are currently facing as they aim to complete their degree.”  

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