The Trump administration banned undocumented college students Tuesday from receiving emergency assistance amid the coronavirus pandemic even though Congress did not exclude the group in a relief bill.
The $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief bill passed by Congress last month included $6 billion for colleges to help students deal with expenses after campuses around the country shut down. But the Department of Education, led by Secretary Betsy DeVos, issued new guidance this week that limits the aid to only citizens and certain legal permanent residents.
The policy says that students must have filed or be eligible for a Free Application for Federal Student Aid. However, undocumented students are barred from receiving most types of federal aid.
The guidance will prevent undocumented students, including hundreds of thousands of students protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program from receiving the aid, according to Politico.
The National Education Association said the move exhibited an "astounding" level of "cruelty."
"These are students who need food & housing," former Obama aide Kyle Lierman tweeted, calling the decision "horrible."
A spokeswoman for DeVos insisted to Politico that the guidance was consistent with the law, but the bill did not include any exemptions on students that would receive the funds.
"The CARES Act makes clear that this taxpayer funded relief fund should be targeted to U.S. citizens, which is consistently echoed throughout the law," Education Department spokesperson Liz Hill claimed.
It is unclear how many students will receive any aid in the near future at all. The department said earlier this week that only 1% of the $6 billion fund had been doled out to students.
The money was aimed at helping students pay for housing or food after campuses were forced to shutter weeks ago, but the Education Department has only sent out $6 million in aid to campuses thus far.
The news comes after DeVos vowed to "get the funds to students as quickly as possible."
The money is "intended to help students now — not months from now — so it's our hope and expectation that institutions will take that responsibility seriously," DeVos said earlier this month.
DeVos "prioritized releasing these funds and made it as simple as possible for schools to access them," department spokeswoman Angela Morabito told Politico as she blamed college officials for "dragging their feet" in submitting applications for the aid.
About 27% of some 5,000 colleges eligible for the aid had applied for it as of Friday. But most of those colleges are still waiting for aid as the department continues to work on guidelines detailing how the money can be used.
"It's tragic that at a time when students are struggling to make ends meet, too many highly capable and intelligent leaders of higher ed institutions are dragging their feet and claiming it's because there's some lack of clarity in the law," Morabito said. "The law is clear, as was the secretary: Give this money to students to support their continued learning and be able to purchase technology, instructional material, food, housing and health care."
Terry Hartle, the senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education, rejected the department's claims.
"It's really wrong for the department to suggest that schools don't want the money when they have not sent out a dime to the schools who have applied and can't tell any school what the rules are for spending it," Hartle told Politico. "If there is a problem, it is that the department is still figuring out how to implement the law."
Justin Draeger, the president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, added that college officials were concerned about applying for the program before the department has announced the rules.
"Schools are working in good faith to get this money out as quickly as they can, but they are also concerned about distributing money when they know more guidance is coming," he said. "Many schools have their plans drawn up and ready to go and are just waiting for their money and final guidance."