Excluded from CARES Act and awaiting court ruling, it’s a stressful time for DACA students

UNLV empty campus
An empty UNLV campus in April. (Photo by Lonnie Timmons III/UNLV Photo Services)

Colleges and universities across the country are preparing to distribute nearly $7 billion in emergency grant funding to students affected by the coronavirus pandemic. The money will help millions of students. But it won’t help the hundreds of thousands of undocumented students known as dreamers.

The $2.2 trillion coronavirus emergency economic relief package known as the CARES Act included approximately $14 billion of dedicated funding for colleges and universities. Half of that money must be distributed directly to students through emergency financial aid grants.

The bill itself does not explicitly exclude the undocumented immigrants who are currently protected from deportation by the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Instead, the exclusion comes from regulations issued by the U.S. Department of Education earlier this month. It barred undocumented students, including DACA recipients, and fully online students from receiving the emergency grants provided by their college.

Nevada System of Higher Education Chancellor Thom Reilly on Tuesday during a virtual panel on DACA called the regulation to exclude undocumented students recipients “very disappointing.” Congressional Democrats have called it an overstep of power by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Reilly said all of the system’s college and university presidents are committed “to the best of their ability” to identifying other funds that can be available to undocumented students. Reilly pointed to UNLV’s Supporting Our Students emergency relief fund and the statewide Nevada Promise as two examples.

NSHE institutions do not ask about immigration status on their applications, which means nobody know exactly how many undocumented students are enrolled. However, the Center for American Progress estimated, based on 2017 American Community Survey data, there are a total of 12,280 DACA recipients in Nevada.

Each of the state’s public colleges and universities has designated a DACA point person whose job is to help connect the students with whatever resources or information they need. Reilly urged students with questions to reach out to that person at their school.

At Nevada State College, that person is Amey Evaluna.

Evaluna described Nevada as “undocufriendly” and said its schools are proactive in supporting their undocumented students. In October, all eight NSHE institutions signed onto a brief asking the U.S. Supreme Court to protect DACA and overturn President Trump’s decision in 2017 to end the program.

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case in November and is expected to release its opinion no later than June.

Michael Shamoon, an attorney with UNLV’s Immigration Clinic, said during the town hall that immigration lawyers believe the justices are leaning toward upholding the suspension of the DACA program.

“That is why we urge all DACA to renew as soon as possible regardless of the expiration date,” he said. “Many individuals see their DACA doesn’t expire until September or October and they think they can wait, but if a decision comes out in June those individuals will not be able to renew.”

The Immigration Clinic is currently processing as many DACA renewals as possible, as well as exploring with individuals other possible legal options for staying in the country..

“Renewing now will buy you extra time,” added Evaluna.

Tuesday’s panel also answered questions submitted by the public. One came from a part-time instructor who asked whether they would lose their job if SCOTUS ruled in favor of the Trump administration. Evaluna and Shamoon agreed it is more likely the program would be phased out rather than eliminated immediately, meaning DACA recipients would be allowed to work and be protected until their current enrollment expires.

Evaluna added that NSHE’s All-Access Committee, which focuses on DACA, immigrant, non-traditional, adult and first generation students, is actively looking to develop more fellowships through state or private funding. That would provide dreamers with more opportunities. They are also looking at how to support entrepreneurship opportunities.

“To anyone who’s panicking right now — I know I would be panicking right now in a time of uncertainty — I want to give a few words of reassurance,” added Shamooon. “It’s unlikely the federal government will deport 700,000 individuals in one fell swoop. It will likely be able to phase out. And everyone who renews now will get two years. A lot can happen. The laws could change. There is still hope for the future.”

April Corbin Girnus
April Corbin Girnus is an award-winning journalist with a decade of media experience. She has been a beat writer at Las Vegas Sun, a staff writer at LEO Weekly, web editor of Las Vegas Weekly and a blogger documenting North American bike share systems’ efforts to increase ridership in underserved communities. An occasional adjunct journalism professor, April steadfastly rejects the notion that journalism is a worthless major. Amid the Great Recession, she earned a B.A. in journalism from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, where she served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper. She later earned an M.A. in media studies and a graduate certificate in media management from The New School for Public Engagement. April currently serves on the board of the Society of Professional Journalists Las Vegas pro chapter. A stickler about municipal boundary lines, April enjoys teaching people about unincorporated Clark County. She grew up in Sunrise Manor and currently resides in Paradise with her husband, two children and three mutts.