The country’s nearly half a million undocumented students won’t be able to access any of the coronavirus emergency relief colleges and universities are receiving to help their students.
The Trump administration on April 21 barred undocumented college students from receiving emergency cash assistance from the new stimulus law that could help with living expenses, such as food, child care and housing.
In California, the public and private colleges are getting more than $1.7 billion to help fight the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, of which at least half of that money is going to emergency grants and financial aid to students.
But in new guidance from the U.S. Department of Education on how colleges and universities could spend that money, the federal agency stated only students who qualify for federal financial aid could be eligible for the more than $6 billion in emergency stimulus aid and grants. Undocumented students, particularly those in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, do not qualify for federal financial assistance and so were excluded from the stimulus grants.
“This was hard news for everyone to hear,” said Emelia Martinez, director of partnerships and special projects for RISE, a national student advocacy organization, and a student at UC Riverside. “We’re trying to build a coalition with other organizations and students to let the Department of Education know that this is not OK. We want every student to get support.”
There are an estimated 4,000 undocumented students enrolled in the 10-campus University of California system, about 9,500 at California State University’s 23 campuses and about 50,000 to 70,000 in the state’s 115 community colleges. About half of those students are estimated to have DACA status, an Obama-era program that protects hundreds of thousands of immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children. Nationally, it’s estimated more than 450,000 undocumented students are enrolled in college, according to a new report.
When U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced the release of the money that had been earmarked as emergency funds for students last week, she said the colleges would have the discretion to distribute the money and encouraged them to prioritize those students with the highest needs.
Mt. San Antonio College President Bill Scroggins said he questioned whether the funding could go to undocumented students last week because there had been a lack of guidance. Without that guidance, he had hoped to be able to use that money for the college’s undocumented students. The college was allocated the most amount of stimulus aid among the state’s two-year institutions at about $8.8 million.
“We have a very large population of over 8,000 undocumented students in our Dreamer program,” Scroggins said, referring to the DACA program. “Los Angeles County has a high population of new immigrants, and they’re not eligible for Pell Grants. We provide a lot of support, scholarships and community support for undocumented students.”
Undocumented students, unfortunately, are a population at high risk of not succeeding in school, especially because of the pandemic, Scroggins said. These students and their families are often employed in entry-level service jobs such as waiters and hotel personnel. They are most likely to lose their jobs because of the economic downturn, he said.
Scroggins said the college would do what it can to help those students, even if they can’t receive the federal stimulus funding.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, a national teachers union, criticized DeVos’ decision to exclude undocumented students.
“Students and schools will bear the brunt of DeVos’ cynicism as they fall further into debt and despair,” Weingarten said. “It is shocking, but not surprising that DeVos would use this pandemic to double down on her political extremism, rather than protect the people she is sworn to serve.”
In a tweet, California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Oritz Oakley expressed his disappointment in the guidance from the department.
“Many of our front-line workers and first responders come from undocumented backgrounds and attend California community colleges,” he said. “Heroes deserve more.”
But there may be other ways, through the state, that undocumented students can access emergency funds.
Lande Ajose, who is Gov. Gavin Newsom’s higher education adviser, told students during a webinar on basic needs that undocumented students could apply for $500 in relief from the state’s Disaster Relief Fund. That money, however, is capped at $1,000 per household, she said.
“If you’re a student over 18 and not eligible for federal aid … and experiencing any hardships, you’re eligible for one of these $500 rewards,” she said.