California Community Colleges on Monday sued Secretary of Education Betsy Devos for not allowing undocumented students, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients and other students who are U.S. citizens or permanent residents to access emergency coronavirus grants made available under the federal stimulus package called the CARES Act.
The lawsuit from California Community Colleges and its chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley has been filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. Joining the lawsuit against DeVos are the Board of Governors of the California Community Colleges; Los Angeles Community College District; the Los Rios Community College District; the State Center Community College District; the Foothill-De Anza Community College District; and the San Diego Community College District. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra is representing the Board of Governors and the chancellor.
The lawsuit says the restrictions on usage of emergency student grants are “unlawful and unconstitutional.” It adds that the Department of Education under DeVos is “arbitrarily placing eligibility restrictions on emergency relief funds that Congress intended to help students defray additional educational costs resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.”
“The Department of Education ignored the intent of the CARES Act to give local colleges discretion to aid students most affected by the pandemic, and instead has arbitrarily excluded as many as 800,000 community college students. Among those harmed are veterans, citizens who have not completed a federal financial aid application, and non-citizens, including those with DACA status,” said chancellor Oakley in a statement on the organization’s website.
Under the CARES Act passed in March, $14 billion was allocated to higher education, of which $6 billion was to take the form of direct emergency cash grants to college students whose lives and education have been disrupted by the coronavirus outbreak. This funding was provided through the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund. But on April 21, the department released guidelines disallowing undocumented and DACA college students from receiving emergency coronavirus federal aid. Department guidelines said only U.S. citizens or permanent residents who have filed, or are eligible to file, Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) are eligible for the grants that are intended for expenses such as childcare, food and housing.
“There is no provision of the CARES Act that imposes eligibility requirements on the students who may receive HEERF [Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund] Assistance. … Moreover, Congress did explicitly limit eligibility for other forms of assistance in the CARES Act, while not doing the same for HEERF Assistance,” says California Community Colleges’ lawsuit.
Last week, higher education advocates in California wrote to Gov. Gavin Newsom calling for the utilization of state and federal relief funds to provide emergency financial aid during the COVID-19 pandemic for more than 82,000 low-income California college students, including nearly 12,000 undocumented students supported by the California Dream Act.
In the letter, Oakley highlighted the importance of community college students during the pandemic.
“It is unimaginable to me that we would not provide relief to tens of thousands of our lowest-income, hardest-working students,” said Oakley.