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U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos exceeded her authority and violated the constitutional principle of separation of powers when she ruled undocumented and hundreds of thousands of other college students were not eligible for emergency grants in the CARES Act, the California community college system alleged in a federal lawsuit Monday.

The colleges and Eloy Ortiz Oakley, the system's chancellor, are asking the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California to rule DeVos’s exclusion of the students from the aid is unconstitutional, and to grant an injunction preventing the Education Department from blocking the colleges' ability to provide the grants to students.

DeVos has come under fire for her interpretation that the stimulus package passed by Congress in March only allowed the grants to go to students who qualify for federal student aid.

The system said in a news release that the interpretation excludes about 70,000 undocumented students who attend California community colleges, including those who were brought illegally to the U.S. as children but who are allowed to live and work in the country under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. However, critics like the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators said requiring students be eligible for student aid excludes many others, like those with below the minimum C grade point average required to get federal loans or grants, and others who are disqualified from receiving standard student aid for other reasons, like being in default in repaying student loans.

According to the lawsuit, the department's interpretation affects far more than undocumented students. It excludes more than 800,000 community college students in California, or more than half of the estimated 1.5 million students enrolled across the system in the spring quarter.

Asked by Inside Higher Ed earlier this month to explain why DeVos believes the CARES Act excludes undocumented and other students, a department spokeswoman pointed at two sections of the stimulus law. One instructs the department to divvy up three-fourths of $12 billion in the bill for higher education institutions based on their number of low-income Pell Grant students. The other tells the department to distribute the stimulus aid to colleges and students in the same way it now distributes student aid.

In the department's thinking, Congress, by making those references to financial aid, was telling DeVos it only wanted those who qualify for regular aid programs to get the emergency grants.

But according to the lawsuit, the CARES Act does not explicitly limit eligibility for the grants. As a result, the colleges argue it should be up to them to decide who should get the grants.

In addition to those denied the help, the suit alleged DeVos’s decision also hurts the colleges because they may have to use other funds to help the students, and the lack of aid could force some students to drop out, lowering the institutions’ aid and funding.

“The Department of Education ignored the intent of the CARES Act to give local colleges discretion to aid students most affected by the pandemic, and instead has arbitrarily excluded as many as 800,000 community college students,” Oakley said in a statement. “Among those harmed are veterans, citizens who have not completed a federal financial aid application and non-citizens, including those with DACA status.”