EDINBURG, Texas (Border Report) — The largest university on the South Texas border with Mexico is trying to understand new rules issued this week by the Department of Education forbidding any federal stimulus funds from the CARES Act to go to undocumented higher education students.
The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley is slated to receive about $34.3 million of the $14 billion in federal funds that Congress has appropriated for higher education institutions as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to help the economy during this pandemic. But earlier this week, the Education Department issued surprising new guidelines for distributing the funds that state unless a student has a Social Security number or qualifies for federal student aid, then they don’t qualify to receive any of the money.
These rules came after Education Secretary Betsy DeVos wrote in an April 9 letter to American higher education officials that this money was to be used for “college students whose lives have been disrupted, many of whom are facing financial challenges and struggling to make ends meet.” The letter made no mention of whether immigration status would affect receipt of funds, and said: “The CARES Act provides institutions with significant discretion on how to award this emergency assistance to students. This means 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 CARES Act provides institutions with significant discretion on how to award this emergency assistance to students. This means 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.”Education Secretary Betsy DeVos
That is why higher institutions, migrant advocates and at least two South Texas congressmen were shocked when DeVos’ agency on Tuesday suddenly released new guidelines stipulating that:
Only students who are or could be eligible to participate in programs under Section 484 in Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended (HEA), may receive emergency financial aid grants. If a student has filed a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), then the student has demonstrated eligibility to participate in programs under Section 484 the HEA. Students who have not filed a FAFSA but who are eligible to file a FAFSA also may receive emergency financial aid grants. The criteria to participate in programs under Section 484 of the HEA include but are not limited to the following: U.S. citizenship or eligible noncitizen; a valid Social Security number; registration with Selective Service (if the student is male); and a high school diploma, GED, or completion of high school in an approved homeschool setting.
UTRGV spokesman Patrick Gonzalez told Border Report that they initially were surprised by the announcement, which came several days after Congress approved the funds.
“We’re still kind of ironing out the details on how that will be distributed,” said Gonzalez, who added that no federal funds have so far been received by his institution.
UTRGV officials say they have $31,000 in a Student Emergency Fund that they are now looking into using to help all their students.
UTRGV has several campuses throughout South Texas, most just miles from the Mexican border, and although Gonzalez says university officials have no official statistics on the number of undocumented students who attend the university, community leaders agree it is in the hundreds, if not thousands.
Luis Maldonado, 33, graduated from UTRGV in 2015 and recently renewed his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program for the fourth time. Maldonado came from Mexico when he was 10 years old as an unaccompanied minor without any documents, and he now lives in Austin.
Maldonado said that he attended classes at UTRGV with many students — called “Dreamers” — who did not have immigration papers. And he said that he is angry the Trump administration is excluding this sector of society that needs help during this COVID-19 crisis.
“It’s more than obvious that we are still considered second-class citizens even though we fought for the right for us to work legally and we continue to contribute to our economy by paying taxes. We are doing everything right but it doesn’t seem to matter,” Maldonado said Friday via phone.
In February, just as the coronavirus pandemic began in the U.S., Maldonado lost his job and he said his mental health has been affected by this crisis as he struggles to find work, and he worries about the future of DACA, which is pending in litigation heard in November by the U.S. Supreme Court. “Every day we wake up and don’t know what the end result of DACA will be,” he said.
Dr. Margarita Alegria, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and chief of the Disparities Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, said denying these funds to undocumented university students at this time puts them at risk for mental health issues, and it jeopardizes their family units, many of which were already financially unstable.
“It’s so important to try to get this help for them,” Alegria said in response to a question from Border Report during a conference call with media Friday morning. “We’re very worried about students who feel they might not be able to continue with their education or their jobs and as a result they will give up and we need to make sure we connect them with aid, philanthropic groups and to make sure they don’t stop their education.”
Alegria said there is much data showing the success of DACA students and the contributions they make to society and the workforce. “DACA students do so much better in terms of academic outcomes and job outcomes. They have gotten higher paying jobs. We really want to make sure this doesn’t deter the generation that’s right now finishing high school and starting college so they don’t drop out.”
U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, a Democrat from Brownsville, Texas, where UTRGV has a campus, told Border Report when he voted for the CARES Act on March 27 he never expected Dreamers would be excluded from getting money.
“When Congress passed the CARES Act, we provided universities with the necessary flexibility to determine how to distribute these funds to students to ensure they went to those most in need. It is unacceptable that Secretary DeVos has now imposed these restrictions on our Dreamers and international students. This pandemic has profoundly impacted families and students and many are still reeling from this new reality. These funds were meant to help students cover food, housing and other expenses and to deprive them of this help is just wrong. I have joined my Democratic colleagues on a letter calling on Secretary Devos to rescind these guidelines and allow universities to decide how best to distribute these critical funds.”
These funds were meant to help students cover food, housing and other expenses and to deprive them of this help is just wrong.”U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Texas
U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, a Democrat whose district includes Edinburg, echoed these sentiments, telling Border Report on Friday: “The coronavirus doesn’t see immigration status. For Secretary DeVos to exclude DACA recipients from emergency education funding is a travesty. They are tax-paying, law-abiding Americans in everything but citizenship status. This decision is another way for the Trump Administration to push their xenophobic, anti-immigrant agenda. During this crisis, we must help our educators and schools do the right thing and help our DACA students.”
For Secretary DeVos to exclude DACA recipients from emergency education funding is a travesty. They are tax-paying, law-abiding Americans in everything but citizenship status.”U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-Texas
Migrant advocates like Karla Vargas, a lawyer with the nonprofit Texas Civil Rights Project, said President Donald Trump is using the coronavirus pandemic to further his agenda to close the borders and to label immigrants as harmful to society.
“The CARES Act itself does not necessarily prohibit the use of these funds for DACA individuals, but that is the decision the Department of Education decided through this fact-sheet they put out,” Vargas said. “This squarely falls in their agenda.”
“The administration has been targeting immigrants in every sense of the word during the COVID pandemic. It’s terrible that they’re using this pandemic to push even more their anti-immigrant sentiment,” Vargas said. “It’s cruel. These are students.”
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com.
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