A federal judge in Massachusetts last week blocked the U.S. Department of Education's interim rule that excludes certain noncitizens and other students from coronavirus aid.
U.S. District Court Judge Leo Sorokin wasn't persuaded by the Education Department's argument that emergency grants funded under the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act should only go to students who qualify for Title IV aid.
Similar court rulings have come down in California and Washington state, suggesting the department's rule is on shaky legal grounds.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos shook the U.S. higher education sector when she announced in late April that CARES funding was limited to only those students who are eligible for federal financial aid.
Campus and industry leaders at the time were largely focused on unauthorized and other noncitizen students being excluded from the relief funds. But concerns emerged later that other student groups would be disqualified, including those who didn't fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), the easiest way to prove Title IV eligibility.
The restriction was later cemented into the interim final rule, which took effect mid-June.
At least two other states have successfully challenged the regulation in court. A federal judge in Washington state halted the rule in June for colleges there but allowed the limitations to stand for noncitizen students. A California judge, however, rejected the rule entirely for the state's community colleges.
The Education Department vowed to appeal both court decisions, but has only done so in the California case so far. Lawyers for the department received an extension of about a month, until Sept. 25, to respond to the Washington state complaint.
Department spokesperson Angela Morabito wrote in an email that the agency is reviewing Sorokin's latest decision, which affects all Massachusetts colleges.
"Congress did not direct the Department to give U.S. taxpayer dollars to wealthy students from China or Iran, nor authorize it to allow payments to be made from federal funds to illegal aliens," Morabito wrote. "Colleges and universities retain the discretion to fund foreign students or illegal aliens. They just cannot use U.S. taxpayer dollars in order to do so."
In blocking the rule, Sorokin cited a ruling in a CARES Act case involving a student from Haiti who attends the Boston-based Bunker Hill Community College.
The student, Farah Noerand, came to the U.S. following an earthquake in 2010 in Haiti and holds temporary protected status. Noerand sued the Education Department for denying CARES funding. Sorokin ruled in Noerand's favor in July, writing that the "CARES Act unambiguously authorized the provision of funds … to students without regard to their immigration status."