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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell releases the Republican proposal for the next coronavirus relief package.


The proposal for the next coronavirus relief package unveiled by Senate Republicans Monday would continue to exclude college students who are undocumented immigrants from receiving emergency aid during the pandemic, potentially setting up a politically charged debate with Democrats.

Democratic lawmakers have strongly condemned Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s controversial decision in April to exclude the students from receiving any of the $6 billion set aside in the CARES Act to help with expenses like housing and food.

In laying out their own $3 trillion proposal for the next COVID-19 package, through the HEROES Act passed by the House in May, Democrats are pushing to reverse DeVos’s decision by making it clear that a federal law prohibiting people who are not U.S. citizens from receiving virtually all kinds of aid does not apply to the student grants.

However, in what’s considered to be an opening bid as Congress races to try to reach a bipartisan bill before beginning a break in two weeks, the Republican proposal was silent in defining which students should receive the emergency aid, leaving in place DeVos's exclusion of many students, including an estimated 450,000 college students who were brought illegally to the U.S. as children and are allowed to stay in the country under the Deferred Action for Childhood Approvals program (DACA). In ruling that only those eligible for federal student loans could get the grants, DeVos also cut from help other students who do not qualify for student aid, including those with bad grades or who have defaulted on student loans.

Senate Republicans had considered undoing DeVos’s action by leaving it up to colleges and universities to decide which students to help with the money, a higher education lobbyist said. But Republican senators apparently dropped the idea before unveiling their proposal Monday.

It’s unclear why. Spokespeople on the Senate appropriations and education committees declined to explain on Tuesday. But immigration hard-liners and conservative groups are strongly opposed to using tax dollars for aid to those who are not U.S. citizens.

“College students who are in the United States illegally should not be benefiting from taxpayer dollars in a coronavirus relief bill -- period,” a spokeswoman for Senator Ted Cruz said on Tuesday,

“Secretary DeVos was right to make that decision,” said the spokeswoman for the Texas senator. "At this point, Democrats simply want to shovel cash that we don't have at the problems caused by the coronavirus pandemic, and it's time we focus on real recovery legislation."

White House spokesman Judd Deere declined comment on the debate over the student grants. But he pointed to the administration’s statement opposing the Democratic HEROES Act, in part because of “misguided provisions,” like allowing noncitizens to receive the $1,200 in aid given to all American adults.

The issue is coming up during a critical period in the DACA debate, in which the Trump administration decides how to proceed after the Supreme Court rejected the administration’s attempt to end the program. A senior administration official on Tuesday said the administration will reject new applications but allow renewals for one year, but added, “the administration continues to have significant doubts about the policy -- the DACA policy’s legality and the negative consequences that ensue from that policy for law enforcement, child welfare, and overall border security.”

In interviews, the political arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation, as well as the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a leading group pushing for immigration restrictions, also said they oppose spending tax dollars to help college students who are undocumented immigrants.

“Given the magnitude of the need and the enormous amounts of money being spent, illegal immigrants should not be taking money that could help someone else,” said FAIR spokesman Ira Mehlman.

“These are the risks you take when you or your parents violate the laws of the U.S.,” he said of the DACA college students.

Noah Weinrich, spokesman for Heritage Action, the political arm of the Heritage Foundation, agreed. Conservatives will “be very opposed to this measure,” he said. “Illegal aliens should certainly not be receiving any type of federal aid funded by American taxpayers, and the left should certainly not be pushing for it in the middle of a pandemic.”

However, DeVos’s exclusion of millions of students from help has been strongly opposed, as well.

California’s community colleges and the Washington State attorney general have challenged DeVos’s determination. Federal judges in both states have imposed preliminary injunctions, although the judge in the Washington State case on Friday ruled against granting a summary judgement to permanently rule against DeVos. The ruling by Thomas O. Rice, chief judge in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington, instead allows the case to continue.

Congressional Democratic leaders on education issues have also lambasted the exclusion of the students, particularly when many are struggling financially during the pandemic-caused recession, saying that DeVos had gone against the intent of Congress.

“The Department has failed to recognize this emergency for what it is,” House education committee chairman Bobby Scott; Rosa DeLauro, chairwoman of the House education appropriations subcommittee; and Senator Patty Murray, the top Democrat on the Senate education committee, wrote DeVos two weeks ago.

The decision has led to “the cruel and unnecessary denial of support to millions of students who are in dire need of assistance,” they wrote.

A number of advocacy groups from United We Dream, the progressive Center for American Progress, and the Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS) are also pushing Congress to overturn DeVos’s decision in the next relief package.

“The Trump administration cut off emergency scholarships to three million low-income students, and now Senate Republicans are following suit,” said James Kvaal, TICAS’s president and a deputy domestic policy adviser in the Obama administration. “It’s a callous decision that will cause needless hardship. In the middle of a global pandemic and deep recession, we shouldn’t be shutting doors in the faces of people who need help.”

While debates over higher education policy haven't taken as high a profile in the partisan debate over the package as have other issues, including the Republican proposal to reduce additional unemployment benefits, a number of contentious issues have emerged. Among them is the amount the aid colleges and universities would receive.

Senate Republicans, in consultation with the White House, are proposing $29 billion in additional aid to higher education. While the previous relief package, the CARES Act, required institutions to spend half of their aid on emergency grants to students, the Republican HEALS Act proposal would let colleges decide how much to give students. The proposal is far less than the $132 billion for higher education Senate Democrats are proposing.

On Tuesday, Association of American Universities president Mary Sue Coleman joined other associations representing colleges and universities in saying the Republican proposal would not go far enough. She also opposed a provision in the proposal that cut by half the amount of aid universities with large endowments could receive, and require that all of it go to aid for students. The proposal came after DeVos criticized universities with large endowments for taking CARES Act aid.

Coleman, whose association represents 65 research universities, said in a statement that the provision “unfairly and counterproductively penalizes our students, faculty, staff, and campus communities by limiting relief funding for schools that are required to pay the misguided and counterproductive endowment tax.”

Coleman also attacked another provision in the Senate proposal that would allow the State Department to deny visas to foreign researchers suspected of trying to steal U.S. research.

Last week, the AAU and other lobbying groups for institutions wrote Republican and Democratic leaders on the Senate homeland security committee, saying the State Department can already deny visas based on national security concerns. The proposal, they said, “could be used to keep out individuals who are coming to study in a broad range of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields or carry out fundamental research.” In addition, other countries could respond with similar policies and exclude U.S. researchers from going abroad.

Meanwhile, 56 groups including Young Invincibles, the Education Trust, the American Association of University Women, the Center for Responsible Lending, the National Consumer Law Center and the American Federation of Teachers wrote congressional leaders opposing a provision in the Senate Republican proposal that would require those with incomes to begin paying back their student loans again on Oct. 1. Borrowers had been excused from making monthly payments under the CARES Act.

A proposal by Senator Lamar Alexander, the Republican chairman of the Senate education, would continue to excuse the unemployed from having to pay. But those with incomes would have to pay at least 10 percent of their discretionary income after essentials like food and housing. They could also choose to pay a fixed annual amount over 10 years. Alexander has said the plan would make it simpler to repay student loans.

But the groups noted that Black borrowers have disproportionately larger amounts of student loans, and that women hold two-thirds of the nation’s student debt. “Given that the current health and economic crisis has no end in sight, Congress should provide real relief for student borrowers and work to strengthen borrower protections, not roll them back,” the groups wrote.

While staying silent on when borrowers with incomes should have to start making payments again, the concept of simplifying loan repayment was endorsed by Kenneth Megan, associate director of higher education at the Bipartisan Policy Center last week.

“Federal direct student loan payments and interest are currently suspended, but when they resume, Congress should consider streamlining repayment options and reducing complexities,” Megan wrote in a blog post. “It would help to ensure affordable payments among struggling borrowers, including those who lost their jobs due to COVID-19, through a simplified income-driven repayment option.”

Also on Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell reiterated to reporters that to gain Republican support, any package would have to include a provision making it more difficult for people who contract the coronavirus to sue colleges, schools, businesses and charities.

While unions like the American Federation of Teachers opposed the idea, colleges and universities have pushed for it.

“No bill will be put on the Senate floor that does not include it,” he said.

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