As federal aid initiatives designed to blunt some of the financial hardships from the COVID-19 pandemic sidestep undocumented students, some colleges and universities — including the University of New Mexico — have decided to fill in the gaps with relief of their own.
UNM has pledged aid to undocumented students who have filled out state financial aid forms. While most undocumented students are barred from federal financial aid, the state of New Mexico permits all students to apply for state financial aid regardless of immigration status.
The financial relief package passed by Congress in March, known as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, included allocations of relief money to universities which must be given to students in the form of emergency grants. However, according to a statement from the U.S. Department of Education, a recipient is ineligible for those funds if they do not possess a Social Security number, excluding all undocumented students — including those paying taxes through an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number.
A last-minute caveat derailed any hope for stimulus money sent to colleges becoming a lifeline for undocumented students — indeed, the public policy think tank Center for American Progress estimated that up to $132.6 million those students generated for their schools in relief funds was withheld from them.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who oversaw the disbursement of the emergency student grants, ruled that undocumented students brought to the country as children weren’t eligible due to language in the CARES Act that was interpreted by the Department to mean only students eligible for traditional federal aid would qualify.
UNM received $8.6 million for student aid through the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund created by the CARES Act. In late April, these relief grants began to be distributed to UNM students. Depending on a student’s expected family contribution, students received amounts ranging from $462 to $775, according to UNM President Garnett Stokes’ report to the UNM Board of Regents on May 12.
Stokes also told the Regents that UNM is providing "equal amounts" of aid to undocumented and DACA students.
Distributing the funds released under the CARES Act to those who are ineligible for it would be considered a breach of the contract signed by a receiving university when applying for the aid. Instead, aid to undocumented students is coming directly from institutional funds.
"In addition to the $8.6 million of CARES money that was distributed to our students, UNM committed a little more than $100,000 to ensure that DACA/undocumented students across all campuses were also included under the same standards for distribution," UNM spokeswoman Cinnamon Blair said in a statement to the Daily Lobo.
UNM's decision to supplement these funds in spite of the lack of federal support is consistent with their previous commitment to solidarity with the undocumented community, according to Alejandro Mendiaz-Rivera, a program specialist at El Centro de la Raza and former DACA recipient.
"UNM has always been extremely progressive when it comes to helping undocumented students," Mendiaz-Rivera said. "UNM, and specifically El Centro, always made me feel at home regardless of my immigration status, and that's why I love UNM so much."
Mendiaz-Rivera also said many undocumented students feel "valued and a part of the Lobo community" because of UNM's initiative to provide these funds.
Colorado State University, along with the University of California and California State University systems, have also announced similar aid for undocumented students to make up for the lack of support under the CARES Act.
According to the Presidents' Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, a non-partisan group of university chancellors and presidents that advocates for policies supporting immigrant, undocumented and international students, it was estimated that undocumented students in higher education numbered more than 450,000 in the United States in 2018. Most came to the U.S. as children or adolescents.
Liam DeBonis is a freelance photographer and reporter at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @LiamDebonis