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Local undocumented students eligible for federal pandemic assistance, Biden administration rules

This photo shows U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona as he delivers remarks during a video address for University of Connecticut graduating students May 7, 2021. Cardona announced Tuesday a new rule that will allow federal coronavirus assistance dollars to be given to undocumented students at colleges and universities.   (Peter Morenus)

Undocumented and international students attending college classes as of March 2020 will be eligible for emergency assistance grants from the federal government, the Biden administration announced Tuesday.

The new rule reverses a widely criticized interpretation by the Trump administration of eligibility for billions of dollars in aid for housing, child care and other costs for students nationwide associated with the pandemic. It will also likely lead to the end of a lawsuit brought in Eastern Washington by state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who sued then-President Donald Trump’s Education Department last year alleging the exclusion of the state’s so-called “Dreamers,” children who received protected legal status after being brought to the country illegally in their youth, exceeded the agency’s authority.

Since then, Congress has passed two more rounds of assistance through its Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund, which has been included in all three rounds of federal COVID-19 stimulus legislation. The most recent bill, passed in March, sets aside an additional $40 billion for the program nationwide.

Spokane-area colleges are set to receive more than $130 million from that allotment, per a formula based on needs, including how many students receive Pell grants and other factors. Spokane Community College will receive $17 million and Spokane Falls Community College $11.5 million. The city’s two private universities, Gonzaga and Whitworth, will receive $8.8 million and $7.5 million, respectively. Eastern Washington University will receive $29 million and Washington State University will collect $61.5 million.

At least half of that money must be used by the schools in the form of emergency grants to students to cover costs incurred by the pandemic. Based on Tuesday’s ruling, those awardees can now include students who are not documented citizens of the United States.

“We will be using the same application process for students to request funds and those requests are all evaluated on an individual basis based on need created by the COVID pandemic,” said Kevin Brockbank, president of Spokane Community College, and Kimberlee Messina, president of Spokane Falls Community College, in a joint statement. “This has been a very successful process up to this point and we believe it will serve this new group of students well too.”

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, who chastised the Trump administration for excluding eligibility last summer, praised the new rule announced Tuesday by Education Secretary Miguel Cardona.

“It shouldn’t matter if you are undocumented or a DACA recipient – every student struggling because of this pandemic deserves access to emergency aid that can make all the difference,” Murray, who chairs the Senate’s Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions, said in a statement.

The new rule will likely change how schools in the Inland Northwest process applications for assistance under the emergency program heading into the summer. In the meantime, the Washington Legislature and the schools themselves set up different programs to support students previously ineligible for the benefit.

The Washington Legislature set aside $5 million in February to give to the state’s colleges and universities to assist undocumented students. That fund is being administered by the Washington Student Achievement Council, which is allowed by law to disburse the money through the end of June.

Becky Thompson, director of student financial assistance for the council, estimated that the money would benefit 2,500 students at several dozen Washington colleges and universities through the end of the year.

“We took the words ‘emergency funding’ very seriously,” Thompson said. “We knew based on some other federal rounds of assistance that students were really hurting.”

Washington State University and other area colleges, in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic, set up their own accounts, not funded by federal dollars, to assist students who didn’t immediately fall under the Education Department’s guidelines in summer 2020.

“We wanted to get money into the hands of students as quickly as possible,” said Phil Weiler, vice president of marketing and communications for Washington State University.

In addition, private donor funds were made available to students at Whitworth and Eastern Washington universities, spokespeople for those schools confirmed. Gonzaga University invited all students to apply for emergency funding and used institutional grants and scholarships to support ineligible students, Sarah Everitt, director of Financial Aid Operations, said in an email.

Initially, the Trump administration rule wasn’t clear whether eligibility extended to students who hadn’t filled out financial aid forms, students paying for college through the GI Bill and others. The Education Department later revised its guidance, but undocumented students remained on a list of likely ineligible recipients.

The federal lawsuit was placed on hold in February, pending the outcome of the rulemaking process in Washington, D.C.

U.S. District Court Judge Thomas O. Rice had initially granted an injunction preventing the Education Department from requiring Washington recipients of money from the first round of stimulus assistance to be documented citizens. Tuesday’s announced rule nullified that requirement for all grants, both previously made and those that will be made in the future.

The Washington Attorney General’s Office and the federal government must update the court on their plans by June 21.