WASHINGTON — The Biden administration said on Tuesday that undocumented students could receive some of the $36 billion in emergency stimulus aid flowing to colleges, reversing a Trump-era policy that barred them from earlier rounds of funding that could help cover necessities.
Miguel Cardona, the education secretary, told reporters during a phone call on Monday that a final rule issued through the Education Department would not require colleges to consider students’ immigration status when determining their need for federal grants that could pay for basics like food and housing.
According to the rule, the Biden administration determined that doing so would create “significant additional roadblocks and delays” in issuing the grants.
“What it does is really simplify the definition of a student,” Mr. Cardona said. “It makes it easier for colleges to administer the program and get money in the hands of students sooner.”
The decision is the latest in a series of sweeping rollbacks meant to restore civil rights and immigration protections that President Biden and his advisers believe were systematically erased during the Trump years. The Education Department has been central to some of those efforts: Mr. Biden has also assigned Mr. Cardona an expansive review of Trump-era policies on sex and gender discrimination and violence in schools.
Aside from direct grants to students to provide money for school supplies, food and housing, the funds are expected to be used to bolster academic support services, purchase laptops and expand mental health programs. All students, including those who have not previously formally applied for federal aid, are now eligible.
The new policy is a pivot from attempts by Trump administration officials to block students who are not citizens from receiving aid.
Last June, Betsy DeVos, the education secretary at the time, issued an emergency rule that barred undocumented students from gaining access to more than $6 billion in emergency relief funds as part of the $2.2 trillion CARES Act that Mr. Trump had signed into law three months earlier. Those affected included tens of thousands of immigrants known as Dreamers, who were brought to the United States as children and are protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
The Trump administration argued that providing funds to undocumented students violated a welfare law that renders most undocumented people ineligible to receive federal aid.
That decision was quickly met with legal challenges, including a preliminary injunction issued by a federal judge in California who ruled that the DeVos policy did not apply to students enrolled in the state’s community colleges.
José Muñoz, a spokesman for United We Dream, a youth-focused immigration advocacy network, said the policy was “one of the more explicit ways” undocumented people have been able to obtain a piece of the $1.9 trillion stimulus package Mr. Biden signed in March.
May 11, 2021, 8:04 p.m. ET
Most undocumented people are not allowed to collect stimulus funds. But the Biden administration has allowed for some of them to receive checks, including those living with American citizens in mixed-status households and DACA recipients with Social Security numbers.
“Undocumented people have been largely left out of federal Covid-19 relief,” Mr. Muñoz said in a statement, “so access” to the funds “for undocumented students is crucial.”
Republicans criticized the reversal of the Trump-era policy as an unchecked distribution of taxpayer funds to noncitizens.
“The law is clear; federal funds are for hardworking citizens,” Representative Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, the top Republican on the Education and Labor Committee, said in a statement on Tuesday. “President Biden is fueling an immigration crisis, and this final rule exacerbates the emergency at the southern border.”
On Monday, an Education Department spokeswoman, who was not authorized to publicly detail the planning, said that the administration had the authority to disburse funds to undocumented students through the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund established through the CARES Act last year, and that Congress had “not drawn sharp lines around who is a student” when determining who could receive money from that fund.
(Democrats and Republicans have interpreted the vague definition in starkly different ways: Last year, Ms. DeVos relied on a similarly vague definition to create the Trump-era rule.)
Existing eligibility requirements for the fund make it “clear that emergency financial aid can support all students who are or were enrolled in an institution of higher education during the Covid-19 national emergency, and it is up to the institution to distribute the funding to students most in need,” the spokeswoman said.
A report published last year by the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, an immigration advocacy group, estimated that 450,000 students enrolled in colleges across the United States were undocumented, and that about half of them were eligible for DACA protections.
A Government Accountability Office assessment of grants distributed under the CARES Act showed that the average grant amount was $830.
About half of the $36 billion earmarked for colleges will go directly to students, Mr. Cardona said. He added that $10 billion would be given to community colleges, $2.6 billion to historically Black colleges and more than $6 billion to minority-serving institutions.
“At a time when families across the country are experiencing significant financial hardship, providing urgently needed relief to students who need it the most is not only the right thing to do,” said Ali Procopio, the university program director for the advocacy group FWD.us, “but is a strong economic investment in our nation’s future.”