Law360 (August 27, 2020, 6:10 PM EDT) -- The Massachusetts attorney general joined the fray of litigation challenging Education Secretary Betsy DeVos' rule restricting coronavirus aid to foreign students, claiming in a lawsuit Wednesday that the rule puts tens of thousands of students in the state in financial straits.
The state argued that the U.S. Department of Education's eligibility requirements for students to receive the funds provided for in the $2.2 trillion stimulus bill known as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES Act, will force Massachusetts students to drop out of school — disrupting their education and depriving universities of their tuition dollars.
The department's requirements, which exclude students who are not eligible for federal financial aid, including recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and individuals on student visas, as well as some American students with poor grades, will target Massachusetts' "most vulnerable students," the suit says.
"Without access to assistance, many of these students will be forced to discontinue their education, upending their lives and depriving [higher education institutions] of tuition and other revenues," the lawsuit says.
Marty Meehan, president of the University of Massachusetts system, warned in a statement that, without the court's intervention, "deserving students will be forced to delay or end their education, and the Massachusetts workforce will be denied a valuable and diverse source of talent."
Massachusetts also contended that the Education Department's eligibility restrictions conflict with Congress' intent when it passed the CARES Act in March, giving the department more than $14 billion to establish a Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund that provides students with emergency grant money to cover remote learning expenses.
"The defendants lack constitutional authority to place restrictions on the distribution of funds appropriated by Congress that were not authorized by Congress," the lawsuit says.
In a Thursday statement, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey called the department's restrictions, formally issued in June, "yet another senseless, cruel attempt from the Trump administration to harm immigrant and other vulnerable students by blocking them from accessing relief."
Angela Morabito, press secretary for the Education Department, said in a statement on Friday that the CARES Act funds "are most assuredly U.S. taxpayer funded grants."
"Congress did not direct the Department to give U.S. taxpayer dollars to wealthy students from China or Iran, nor authorize it to allow payments to be made from federal funds to students who are noncitizens," she said. "Colleges and universities retain the discretion to fund foreign students. They just cannot use U.S. federal taxpayer dollars in order to do so."
The case was assigned to U.S. District Judge Leo T. Sorokin, who recently ordered a Massachusetts community college to offer CARES Act funds to a Haitian student living in the U.S. under a program called Temporary Protected Status, which gives deportation protections and work permits, but not legal status, to individuals from countries in crisis.
Judge Sorokin found in the July ruling that the CARES Act offers financial relief to "persons enrolled in institutions of higher education without regard to their immigration or citizenship status." However, he stopped short of scrapping the Education Department's restrictions altogether for schools nationwide while the case progressed.
At least two other federal judges have found that parts of DeVos' restrictions are likely illegal. In June, a California federal judge found that the restrictions on foreign students were unconstitutional and barred the department from enforcing the eligibility rule at California community colleges.
Earlier that month, a federal judge in Washington state handed down a more limited ruling that blocked the Education Department from enforcing some of the restrictions on community colleges in that state, finding that the department had likely exceeded its authority in imposing the limits.
However, the Washington judge stopped short of lifting those restrictions for foreign students, finding that the government had made a "compelling argument" that another law stating that certain foreign citizens are ineligible for federal public benefits meant foreign students could be barred from this relief package.
The state of Massachusetts is represented by Abigail B. Taylor, Jonathan Burke, David Ureña and Abrisham Eshghi of the Massachusetts attorney general's office.
Counsel information for the federal government was not immediately available.
The case is Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. DeVos et al., case number 1:20-cv-11600, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts.
--Editing by Bruce Goldman.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the date the lawsuit was filed. The error has been corrected.
Update: This story has been updated with a comment from the Education Department.
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