Emergency COVID Grants Are Now Available to Immigrant Students (The Torch)

Emergency COVID Grants Are Now Available to Immigrant Students

THE TORCH: CONTENTSBy Sarah Kim Pak
MAY 27, 2021

The U.S. Department of Education (ED) recently finalized new federal regulations and accompanying frequently-asked-questions (FAQ) guidance that remove the Trump administration’s unfair and unlawful restrictions denying undocumented and other immigrant students access to COVID-19–related emergency financial assistance grants under the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF). Under the new rule, previously excluded students are now eligible for these emergency grants, which are provided to help students remain in school and cover unexpected “cost of attendance” expenses and other related costs imposed by the pandemic.

Photo by heylagostechie on Unsplash

Whom do the new rules impact? Under the new rule and FAQ, undocumented students, people with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) or temporary protected status (TPS), international students, and other immigrant students who were previously excluded from eligibility now may receive the emergency grants. This change does not affect the eligibility of those who previously qualified (such as lawful permanent residents, refugees, or asylees).

Specifically, the ED has redefined which students qualify for HEERF emergency grants under the regulations (34 C.F.R. sec. 677.3) as any individual who is or was enrolled at an eligible institution on or after March 13, 2020, the day President Trump declared that COVID-19 is a national emergency. In short, the only requirement to receive the HEERF grants is enrollment, as of or after March 13, 2020, at a qualifying institution of higher education as defined under 34 C.F.R. secs. 600.2 and 677.3 — i.e., colleges, universities, proprietary higher education institutions, and postsecondary vocational institutions.

What, exactly, are HEERF emergency grants? In March 2020, Congress created HEERF through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) to help both educational institutions and students “prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus.” The subsequent Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2021 (CRRSAA) and the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARP) allocated additional funding for HEERF.

Despite Congress’s clear intent to provide broad emergency relief to students, the Trump administration’s Department of Education, under Secretary Betsy DeVos, published regulations and corresponding agency guidance that improperly excluded many immigrant students from receiving the HEERF emergency grants. In all four court cases that swiftly challenged the regulations and guidance, the courts agreed that DeVos had unlawfully superimposed immigration status requirements onto the HEERF program.

The ED’s new rule and FAQ guidance restore the emergency financial relief that Congress originally intended to provide to students experiencing hardship and other impacts during the global COVID-19 pandemic.

How are the HEERF emergency grants distributed? Under the various pandemic-related legislative packages, Congress authorized the ED to distribute HEERF funds to higher education institutions, which in turn provide the emergency grants directly to students. Institutions must ensure that they prioritize students who have exceptional need and must not distribute the grants in a way that discriminates on the basis of race, color, national origin, disability, or sex (FAQ question 10).

How can HEERF emergency grants be used? Students may use the grants to cover unexpected “cost of attendance” expenses or other emergency costs resulting from the pandemic, such as food, housing, technology, course materials, tuition, health care (including mental health care), or child care (FAQ question 13). Institutions may not direct or further limit what students use their grants for; compel students to use their grants to satisfy existing fees, debts, or balances; nor impose any conditions to receive the grants (such as any academic or other performance criteria or “good standing” requirements) (FAQ questions 12 and 14).

What are other considerations to keep in mind? First, HEERF emergency grants are not taxable income (FAQ question 15). As explained by the Internal Revenue Service, HEERF emergency grants, like other emergency educational assistance measures, are not included in a student’s gross income and, therefore, are not taxable. Also, HEERF emergency grants are not financial aid (FAQ question 17). To receive the grants, students do not have to complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) or be eligible for “federal financial aid” under Title IV. As stated above, the only requirement to receive the HEERF grants is enrollment at a qualifying institution as of or after March 13, 2020. Consequently, institutions may not incorporate the HEERF emergency grant into a student’s overall financial aid award package (FAQ question 17).

Finally, receipt of a HEERF grant is not considered in determining whether a person is likely to become a “public charge.” Under the 1999 Field Guidance for immigration officials and relevant Foreign Affairs Manual instructions (for U.S. State Department officials), neither emergency disaster relief nor educational assistance is considered in a public charge determination.

What comes next? If you are a student newly eligible for a HEERF grant, be on the lookout for more information from your school on disbursement and other next steps. As mentioned above, educational institutions are tasked with dispensing the HEERF grants directly to students, and, therefore, this process and the timeline for disbursement will look different at every school. If your school or college/university system has an immigrant student support “Dream” center or equivalent, check with it to obtain more guidance. For example, the University of California system has a list of resources and contacts, as does the California State University system.

Questions? Feedback? Email us at [email protected]g.


Sarah Kim Pak is a NILC staff attorney.