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Undocumented students lose out on COVID-19 funds

The economic crisis slowly blanketing the country isn’t being felt uniformly. The people who were poor or struggling before, are now poorer and the struggle has taken on new dimensions. Those with work from home access or paid furloughs from their jobs have mainly been burdened with inconvenience, not hardship. Nowhere is this more clear than in the divide between those who have the rights that accompany citizenship in the United States and those who do not. Undocumented people have shouldered a disproportionately intense level of the harm caused by COVID-19. And on April 21st they were dealt another blow by the Trump administration and it’s education appointee Betsy De Vos.

Undocumented students are not eligible for federal assistance through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FASFA. This acts as a major barrier for their entry into secondary education. In Washington state, undocumented students and Deffered Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients can apply for financial aid at the state level. The DACA program is an Obama administration immigration policy that allowed some children brought to the US as minors to receive 2 year deferrals on their deportation proceedings and be eligible for work permits in the US. In 2017 President Trump announced he would begin to phase out the program, leaving many students unsure about their future in the US.  

The Washington Application for State Financial Aid, or WASFA gives students access to the State Need Grant; the College Bound Scholarship and other forms of aid that individual institutions offer their students. This application is not limited to those who can prove citizenship in the US and accepts undocumented students as long as they fit a few criteria. There are only 8 states that offer this kind of help to those denied FAFSA access. In Washington, many of the students applying for the state level aid are doing so to attend one of the state’s 40 or more community colleges.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act or CARES act was signed into law on March 27th, 2020. It allocated an estimated over 2 Trillion dollars in stimulus aid to a flailing US economy. Some of which has been earmarked to directly help struggling students and higher education institutions rocked by changes since the beginning of the global pandemic. The specific monetary allocations were announced on April 9th.

Seattle Central College will receive $3,252,598 of the $14 billion allocated to higher education institutions. According to Roberto Bonaccorso, the Public Information Officer at Seattle Central, “$1,626,299 is going to students for emergency funds, and the rest will help cover the costs at the college for adapting to the COVID-19 restrictions.” The funds will be distributed through the financial aid office, where staff will apply the aid to student’s bank accounts or debit cards. It will help about 2,000 students according to Bonaccorso.

While this monetary windfall is an asset to the student body and the college, “many colleges are holding on to a portion of CARES dollars to provide support across the next year because we know this isn’t a ‘one time impact’ and the impacts of the pandemic and related challenges will continue to impact students”, according to Yoshiko Harden, Vice President of Student Services at Central. “We are as well”, he added.

But on April 21st Betsy Devos, Trump’s education secretary appointee announced that students brought to the US illegally as minors would not be given access to this financial aid package. According to Aaron Wyatt, Communications Director for the Washington Student Achievement Council, it “appears” that students who do not qualify for FAFSA, but instead use WASFA funding are ineligible for CARESact money but that the “money for CARES is going to the institutions”. Implying that ultimately dispersal will come down to the college’s discretion. According to Bonaccorso, “Under Department of Education guidelines for [the] CARESact, students who are undocumented or who have an invalid Social Security number on file are not eligible for funds”. But that “ineligible students can apply for limited emergency funds through Student Support Services”. Undocumented Support Services was not able to be reached for this article.

According to the Washington Student Achievement Council in the 2018-2019 school year “2,226 WASFA applicants received [the] State Need Grant (now Washington College Grant), 921 of these 2,226 WASFA applicants also received the College Bound Scholarship”. These numbers represent both people with valid social security numbers and without. Those without valid social security numbers, primarily undocumented people living in the US have been disproportionately left out of federal funding during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led some to point out this discrepancy as intentional. “Undocumented communities are over represented in the workforce that puts itself at great risk to assure that everyone in America has food, health care, and other essential needs, yet they have been consistently barred from receiving aid under the CARES Act. The health, well-being, and education of students from undocumented communities is just as essential, and these students should receive aid,” said Kendrick Washington, ACLU-WA Youth Policy Counsel.

Student funding and the expenses around off-campus learning will continue to be an issue into the summer. On April 29th District Communications announced that “Summer quarter will begin as scheduled (June 29) primarily through online and alternative modes of instruction.” The future of what our campus will look like, and what relief may be given to all students, is still uncertain.

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