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Betsy DeVos Takes Official Action to Prevent Coronavirus Funding from Going to Student ‘Dreamers’

Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education (DOE) issued an official rule on Thursday that constitutes a near-final step in excluding certain groups of immigrants–notably, DACA recipients or “Dreamers”—from the $12.6 billion in coronavirus funding appropriated by Congress to assist students. The DOE’s rationale for holding back the funding? Coronavirus funding is for U.S. citizens, and no one else.

First, a little background.

Congress appropriated $14 billion to higher education in a Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF). $12.6 billion of those funds were to be allocated to colleges and universities using a formula provided by Congress. Each school would then give half of its money to students as emergency grant aid, and use the other half in ways of its choosing. Under the CARES Act language, higher education institutions are to use HEERF Assistance to “cover any costs associated with significant changes to the delivery of instruction due to the coronavirus.”

DeVos, though, chose to put additional conditions on the funding. Per the DOE’s rule announced Thursday, students eligible for CARES funding must also must be eligible for federal Title IV student financial aid. Guess who that leaves out? You guessed it: DACA recipients. Other undocumented students, temporary Protected Status recipients, and asylum applicants are also ineligible.

DeVos commented Thursday on the reasoning behind the rule, saying that it will help “erase any uncertainty some institutions have expressed and helps make sure we can support America’s students facing the greatest needs.” Apparently, DeVos’s concept of “America’s students” does not include the 450,000 undocumented students enrolled our higher education system, with 87-percent of DACA-eligible students in undergraduate programs, and 13 percent in graduate-level programs.

Angela L. Morabito, a DOE spokesperson, explained the rationale for the Department’s decision.

“The CARES Act makes clear that this taxpayer-funded relief fund should be targeted to U.S. citizens,” she said, “which is consistently echoed throughout the law,”  the spokesperson said.

Speaking of taxpayer funds, $50 million of those very funds come from DACA recipients.

When the DOE first announced this rule as informal guidance, the chancellor of California’s community colleges and five California college districts sued, calling the restrictions “unlawful.” The complaint argued that DeVos’s decision to restrict funding had been unilateral and, therefore, was illegal as violative of separation of powers. As an executive branch employee, it’s not up to DeVos to change rules set out by Congress.

The plaintiffs also argued that forcing schools to exclude certain immigrants causes harm not only to those immigrant students—who account for more than half of all students in the California community college system)–but to schools themselves. The global pandemic has wreaked havoc on school administration. The rule excluding DACA recipients constitutes “confusing and conflicting guidance” which results in a “significant administrative burden” on financial aid offices, the complaint said.

Terry Hartle, a senior vice president at the American Council on Education, said the rule has caused “head-snapping uncertainty on college campuses,” and has necessitated, ” a complicated, time-consuming process that is completely inconsistent with emergency grants.”

The DOE’s position is that it is doing what Congress intended. Hartle answered that “Congress had nothing to do with it.”

“The department has to own it,” Hartle said.

The rule will enter the public comment phase next month.

[image via Drew Angerer/Getty Images]

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Elura is a columnist and trial analyst for Law & Crime. Elura is also a former civil prosecutor for NYC's Administration for Children's Services, the CEO of Lawyer Up, and the author of How To Talk To Your Lawyer and the Legalese-to-English series. Follow Elura on Twitter @elurananos