College students who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children may or may not be eligible to receive federal aid from their institutions through the latest coronavirus response bill, the CARES Act.
The stimulus, most well-known for its provision to give $1,200 to individual taxpayers, sets aside $14 billion for higher education. More than $6 billion of that money must go to students to defray any expenses they've suffered as a result of the disruption of campus operations due to the coronavirus, such as costs for childcare, technology or health care.
Guidance from the U.S. Department of Education gives wide latitude to colleges, allowing them to decide how to disperse the aid and to which students. The department encouraged institutions to decide a cap on their aid to individual students, but did not mandate it. It also encouraged institutions whose students have little financial need to give their allocation to others in their state or region.
But some in higher education have questioned whether the aid will be available to students who immigrated to the U.S. illegally as children, many of whom have received work authorization and relief from deportation from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Though the CARES Act does not specify that students must be eligible for federal financial aid (which DACA recipients are not), existing law signed in the 1990s specifies that those who immigrated illegally are ineligible for federal benefits.
David Bergeron, former acting assistant secretary for postsecondary education at the department and a current senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, said existing provisions allow for short-term, noncash, in-kind disaster relief for noncitizens.
"We should be looking creatively to try to get to the people who are most impacted," he said.
Institutions might be able to contract with providers to directly secure childcare or technology for affected students, he said, instead of giving them a check.
Terry Hartle, senior vice president for government affairs at the American Council on Education, emphasized that the department should end any uncertainty by clarifying whether DACA students can receive stimulus funds.
"We absolutely hope that they're eligible," he said via email. “But given the uncertainty that surrounds this question, it’s important that the department provide clear guidance to campuses."
Alison Griffin, a former policy adviser for the U.S. House of Representatives' education committee and senior vice president at Whiteboard Advisors, emphasized that recent laws and guidance don't define what a student is.
"That gives higher ed institutions a pretty fair amount of discretion or at least latitude to figure out who on their campus needs those emergency funds," she said, though she could not speak on specifics of older legislation.
Bergeron said that whether institutions are even aware of their students' immigration statuses could vary. He said he hopes colleges that have not looked into immigration statuses will reach out to students when the time comes to assess need.
The Education Department did not respond to requests for comment by Monday evening.