Education Department Formally Restricts Illegal Immigrants From Receiving CARES Aid

June 12, 2020 Updated: June 12, 2020

In a finalized rule over the distribution of federal grants to help ease financial hardship for college students during the pandemic, the U.S. Department of Education has re-affirmed its position that illegal immigrants and international students will not receive the relief money.

“It’s clear the CARES Act was written to help Americans recover from the coronavirus pandemic,” Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said in a Thursday statement. “U.S. taxpayers have long supported U.S. students pursuing higher education, and this rule simply ensures the continuity of that well-established policy.”

While setting aside $6 billion direct cash grants to help students cover expenses incurred due to the pandemic, Congress didn’t define “student” in the legislation, according to DeVos, who called it “a critical ambiguity” requiring her department to “exercise its narrow interpretative authority.” Since the CARES Act did reference portions of the Higher Education Act that deals with Title IV aid programs, DeVos took this to mean that only Title IV-eligible students can receive the grants.

DeVos also noted that many colleges and universities have already started to distribute their emergency aid funds based on their own definition of “students.” Under the finalized rule, however, those institutions would have to stop awarding grants to everyone who meets their broader definition.

DeVos in April issued a guidance on which students can receive the CARES Act relief money. Although Congress didn’t explicitly state in the legislation to bar certain students from getting those grants, the guidance said that the grants are only available to students who are also eligible for Federal Student Aid, which excludes illegal immigrants, including participants in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

The guidance faced backlash, including two lawsuits filed against DeVos—one from the California Community Colleges System and another from Washington’s attorney general. They argued that her department misinterpreted the will of Congress in not allowing CARES Act funds to be awarded to international students, DACA recipients, and many other students. In response to criticism, the Education Department took a step back, saying in a statement that it would not enforce that guidance because it lacked “the force and effect of law.”

Created by the Obama administration in 2012, the DACA program grants those who were illegally brought to the United States as children protection from deportation, as well as renewable work permits. In 2017, the Trump administration announced it would terminate DACA, and the Supreme Court is expected to decide by this month on whether that decision was lawful.