April 27, 2020

Udall, Heinrich Call On Education Secretary DeVos To Grant DACA Students Access To Emergency Financial Aid Secured In CARES Act

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senators Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), along with 26 Senate Democrats, are calling on U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to allow Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) students to access Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds secured in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. 

Last week, Senators Udall and Heinrich along with the entire delegation announced that thirty of New Mexico’s higher education institutions would receive $62 million in funding through the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEER). From this funding, $31 million must go towards providing cash grants to students for expenses related to disruptions to their educations due to the COVID-19 outbreak, including things like course materials and technology as well as food, housing, health care, and childcare.

“DACA recipients came to this country as children and make extraordinary contributions to our communities and our economy,” wrote the senators. “During this Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, DACA recipients attending institutions of higher education across the country face challenges like other students, many with the added burden of supporting their parents and siblings or being the first in their families to attend college. These students should not be excluded from critical aid. Indeed, those who are especially vulnerable to economic hardship are exactly whom these funds were designed to help.”

Secretary DeVos recently announced that the U.S. Department of Education will restrict eligibility for the emergency financial aid based on a student’s citizenship status. In the letter, the senators explained that the higher education grant funding is meant for college students experiencing financial hardship due to the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, including DACA recipients. 

Read the full text of the letter below or by clicking here

Dear Secretary DeVos:

We write to express our serious concerns regarding the Department of Education’s decision to prohibit institutions of higher education (IHE) from granting emergency assistance to undocumented students including tens of thousands of students who are living in the United States under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. This measure unnecessarily harms students in need, and contradicts clear Congressional intent in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. We urge you to comply with the CARES Act and reverse this decision immediately.

DACA recipients came to this country as children and make extraordinary contributions to our communities and our economy. During this Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, DACA recipients attending institutions of higher education across the country face challenges like other students, many with the added burden of supporting their parents and siblings or being the first in their families to attend college. These students should not be excluded from critical aid. Indeed, those who are especially vulnerable to economic hardship are exactly whom these funds were designed to help.

As you know, the CARES Act creates a Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund to distribute over $14 billion in funding to institutions of higher education, with over $6 billion being required to go directly to students in the form of emergency financial aid grants. The language in the CARES Act allows DACA recipients to receive these emergency financial aid grants, at the discretion of each individual institution. While the bill uses existing mechanisms to physically distribute funding, it lays out the specific authorized uses for the funding, which fall outside of the scope of any existing federal student aid program. These authorizations provide significant flexibility to institutions in determining how to distribute funding amongst students, and make no prohibitions against DACA recipients receiving funding.

In fact, your letter to institutions of higher education announcing the availability of CARES Act funding for students states that “each 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. The only statutory requirement is that the funds be used to cover expenses related to the disruption of campus operations due to coronavirus (including eligible expenses under a student’s cost of attendance, such as food, housing, course materials, technology, health care, and child care).” Your Department’s own letter accurately describing the CARES Act directly contradicts the guidance the Department subsequently produced.

Additionally, when asked about the new guidance, a spokesperson for your Department stated that the exclusion of DACA recipients and undocumented immigrants “…is consistently echoed throughout the law.” While it is true that some sections of the CARES Act contain explicit requirements that result in these individuals being deemed ineligible for various aspects of non-education related relief, the Education Stabilization Fund and Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund contain no such prohibitions and eligibility for these funds should be at the discretion of each institution.

Lastly, it is in the public interest to provide this relief. Should the Department deprive undocumented students of this aid, they may be exposed to greater vulnerabilities and the risk of prolonging this crisis would increase. There are few public health experts that would argue that the key to ending a viral pandemic is to make thousands housing-insecure, economically vulnerable, and to reduce their access to healthy food. Furthermore, we have seen disturbing data on how COVID-19 has disproportionately affected communities of color. Pulling funds out from under these students will only worsen this crisis within a crisis, and hurt their friends, families, and communities. 

As families across the country struggle to deal with the public health and economic consequences of the COVID-19 emergency, we must work together to help all students in need, regardless of immigrant status. I urge you to reverse your decision to exclude DACA recipients from CARES Act emergency financial aid grants to students.

Thank you for your attention to this important matter.

Sincerely,