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Undocumented college students can access pandemic aid, Biden administration says, reversing Trump rule

Drop in undergrad enrollment at U.S. colleges
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The Biden administration announced on Tuesday it will allow undocumented college students, including so-called "Dreamers," to access federal coronavirus relief aid, reversing Trump-era guidance that rendered them ineligible for the assistance allocated by Congress.

New rules by the Department of Education allow undocumented immigrant students, including those protected from deportation by the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, to request the aid, as long as they have been enrolled at a U.S. college or university since March 13, 2020, when the U.S. declared a national emergency over the coronavirus.

Refugees, asylum-seekers and undocumented immigrants who are not enrolled in DACA are also eligible for the grants, the department clarified Tuesday, saying the Trump-era limits blocked aid for the country's "most needy and vulnerable students."

The guidance supersedes rules issued by the Trump administration in April and June 2020 that restricted the pandemic assistance to students who were eligible for federal financial aid under the Higher Education Act of 1965. Those Trump-era rules excluded international and undocumented students, who can't access federal college assistance.

Under the CARES Act in March 2020, Congress allocated $12.5 billion to establish the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund. At least half of that money was required to go to colleges and universities to distribute to students struggling during the pandemic, so they could pay for food, housing, course materials, technology, health care and child care. 

The other COVID-19 relief packages signed into law by Presidents Trump and Biden in December 2020 and March 2021, respectively, authorized an additional $62.3 billion in funding for the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund and tasked the Department of Education to prioritize students with "exceptional need."

The previous restrictions on the coronavirus college aid garnered several lawsuits, as well as strong criticism from advocates, who decried the rule as another Trump administration policy targeting undocumented immigrants. According to the Department of Education, over 99% of more than 4,100 public comments filed on the Trump-era rules were in opposition to them.

In a rule codifying the policy changes, the Biden administration said it generally agreed with comments that highlighted the pandemic's disproportionate adverse impact on immigrant communities and people of color. Aid allocation should be based on need, the Education Department said, noting that undocumented students "are no less deserving" of assistance.

"In their capacity as students, undocumented persons, like all postsecondary students, pursue degrees, obtain employment commensurate with their educational attainment and in doing so contribute to the greater good of the economy and society as a whole," the rule says. "The Department has been persuaded, therefore, by the public comments received that there is no good policy reason to treat them differently."

Undocumented students, including DACA recipients, are not eligible for federal student aid, and in some states, they are required to pay out-of-state tuition rates. However, some states like New York, New Jersey and California offer state financial aid to undocumented students, and others allow them to pay in-state tuition.

In a statement Tuesday, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said his department was releasing $36 billion in funds authorized by the American Rescue Plan to more than 5,000 institutions of higher education so the schools can provide direct aid to students.

"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 said. 

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