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Law360 (May 12, 2021, 6:30 PM EDT) -- The Biden administration reversed a Trump-era policy that kept undocumented college students and other immigrants from receiving federal education relief grants to pay for expenses during the coronavirus pandemic.
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona announced Tuesday that colleges can distribute pandemic relief grants to students regardless of their immigration status or whether they qualify for financial aid. The move reverses former Education Secretary Betsy Devos' rule barring colleges from providing pandemic relief to undocumented students and DACA recipients who grew up in the U.S. but were brought to the country illegally when they were young children.
"These funds are critical to ensuring that all of our nation's students — particularly those disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic — have the opportunity to enroll, continue their education, graduate, and pursue their careers," Cardona in a statement.
According to an updated list of frequently asked questions on the Department of Education's website, undocumented students and international students are now eligible to receive the funds, including refugees, legal permanent residents and asylum seekers, regardless of if they've completed a federal student aid application.
The policy change could have a resounding impact. According to an April 2020 report from the Presidents' Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, there are about 450,000 undocumented students enrolled in higher education in the U.S.
Colleges are required by the Department of Education to give half of their COVID-19 relief dollars directly to students with exceptional need in the form of financial aid cash grants. Those can be used for expenses such as internet costs, food, housing and child care.
The announcement, scheduled to be published in the Federal Register on Thursday, is part of a $36 billion federal funding push for higher education, dubbed the "Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund," with money coming from the $1.9 trillion stimulus package President Joe Biden signed in March. The grants are expected to help over 5,000 higher education institutions, Cardona said.
The new regulation replaces an April 2020 interim rule that spurred several lawsuits from states and immigration advocates who said the rule was too strict in requiring education agencies to determine how much relief funding schools should get based on the number of enrolled low income students.
Three federal judges last year blocked portions of the old rule, but the court rulings only applied to colleges in Massachusetts and Washington state, and community colleges in California.
The Education Department said Tuesday that $10 billion of higher education funds will go to support community colleges, another $2.6 billion for historically Black colleges and universities and $190 million for tribal colleges. Nearly $6 billion is for other types of minority-serving institutions, including those serving large populations of Hispanic students, Native American and Pacific Islander students.
Advocates who support immigrants' access to education applauded the move and said it will be especially beneficial for paying for educational expenses now when the pandemic has upended the lives of millions of students.
"This announcement by the Biden administration is a welcome departure from the previous administration's awful decision to deny these vital emergency funds to undocumented students," said Karen Tumlin, director of the Justice Action Center, an organization that works with DACA recipients and undocumented students on access to education.
DeVos' rule also disqualified students who had defaulted on a student loan or had a drug conviction, which the Biden administration reversed in January.
--Editing by Amy Rowe.
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