Undocumented Students Generated Up to $132 Million in Relief to Colleges—But They Won’t Receive a Dime From the Stimulus

A DACA recipient and student attends criminology class in October 2017, in Willimantic, Connecticut.

Author’s note: The name “Maya” is a pseudonym used to protect the identity of the UCLA student interviewed for this column.

Maya is an undocumented student activist enrolled at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) as a sociology and labor studies major. Her parents are undocumented and have lost their jobs due to shutdowns caused by the coronavirus pandemic. While Maya’s family’s unexpected struggles resemble many families’ across the country right now, her family is not eligible to receive the stimulus checks that the U.S. government is disbursing as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Maya recently paid her family’s rent with the money she received from a private $1,000 scholarship.

UCLA will soon receive nearly $18 million in emergency aid for students from the U.S. Department of Education. For Maya and other students, accessing a portion of that funding could be the difference between leaving college and completing their degree.

But Maya won’t receive a penny of this relief. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos recently made the cruel and unnecessary decision to add a restriction not included in the legislation—a choice that prohibits undocumented students from receiving any emergency aid. This is the case even though Maya’s presence on UCLA’s campus contributed a couple hundred dollars to the funds the university received.

She’s not the only undocumented student in this situation. Nearly half a million college students in the United States are undocumented, including Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) recipients who live and work lawfully in the United States. According to CAP estimates, undocumented students could have helped their colleges receive as much as $132.6 million in the stimulus bill. This is based on the type of college attended, the rate they studied full time, and if they were exclusively online.

How a cruel, unnecessary exclusion left undocumented students behind

More than $6 billion from the CARES Act was designated for emergency aid to college students, many of whom have faced urgent expenses related to COVID-19. Undocumented students are encountering acute challenges in meeting their basic needs, all while fearing deportation.

The funding being administered to colleges is based on institutions’ share of Pell Grant recipients and non-Pell Grant recipients. That latter group includes all students regardless of immigration status—as long as they weren’t studying entirely online before the crisis began. It’s necessary that institutions receive aid to support the undocumented students they serve, but to then deny these same, most-vulnerable students money is nonsensical.

The CARES Act also did not define who was an eligible student for the higher education emergency relief fund; it only laid out distribution, use of funds, and reporting requirements. Just last month, the Department stated that all students could receive emergency aid.

Then, the agency reversed itself. It now states that students must have received or been eligible to apply for federal financial aid funds in order to receive the emergency aid. This excludes undocumented students. This will also create headaches for institutions such as California community colleges, which enroll many low-income students who do not apply for aid because of state tuition waivers.

Requiring that students be eligible for federal financial aid to access the stimulus money is not mandated by the law. In fact, the funding agreement letter colleges must sign to receive the money explicitly states: “The Secretary does not consider these individual emergency financial aid grants to constitute Federal financial aid.”

The result of DeVos’ choice? Undocumented students will receive no help despite the fact that their enrollment helped colleges receive more stimulus money in the first place.

For example, the University of California (UC) 10-campus system enrolls approximately 4,000 undocumented students, who are helping to generate part of the $260 million going to UC campuses in CARES Act allocations. The UC campuses will have $130 million in emergency financial aid to provide students, but they are forbidden from allocating these funds to undocumented students.

Now, colleges and universities are left further constrained in serving all students. Many will need to think of creative ways to ensure undocumented students remain enrolled such as providing emergency funds from private or out-of-pocket sources. But those will be severely limited funds as colleges face their own financial challenges due to looming state budget cuts and loss of future student enrollment.

How this will hinder America’s economic recovery from COVID-19

While needlessly harming undocumented individuals is consistent with the Trump administration’s inhumane immigration policies, it also hinders America’s recovery from the economic health devastation brought on by COVID-19.

Undocumented college students were already struggling to afford college and now will be more likely to drop out during the pandemic without emergency aid. This will also negatively affect the U.S. economy, which won’t benefit from the additional training and skills for which undocumented students went to school. Undocumented medical students, nursing students, and public health students may discontinue their studies—a price this country cannot afford.

This all adds up to significant national economic effects. The Center for American Progress has found that DACA recipients make major fiscal contributions to the economy, paying nearly $10 billion in federal, state, and local taxes annually and living in households with roughly $24 billion in annual purchasing power.

Moreover, the value of undocumented students should not be solely understood in economic terms. Countless research studies show that racial, linguistic, and cultural diversity is an asset that promotes academic achievement and helps the country thrive in a globalized world.

The administration must rescind this cruel and unnecessary mistake. It is not only immoral and economically counterintuitive, but it is also ungrounded in the law. The CARES Act did not define an eligible student, and DeVos’ policy decision is widely opposed. Twenty-six Senate Democrats have called on DeVos to rescind the guidance. And the University of California has recently announced it will provide DACA students with emergency aid out of its own funds.

As UCLA student Maya stated, “We’re excluded from the [federal] assistance that’s being provided for everyone right now. We do everything in society. We’re still going to work. We pay our taxes. And we are still excluded from that support.”   

Viviann Anguiano is an associate director of Postsecondary Education at the Center for American Progress.

To find the latest CAP resources on the coronavirus, visit our coronavirus resource page.