Students advocate for expanded COVID-19 stimulus relief

a white man's folded hands at a wooden desk in front of a piece of paper with signature in sharpie
President Donald Trump signs the CARES Act March 27. Some 5C students say the legislation doesn’t go far enough. (Shealah Craighead/The White House via Wikimedia Commons)

COVID-19 Aid for All, a group founded by 5C students, is lobbying for broader inclusion in the next federal stimulus bill.

5C students created the organization after Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act March 27. The group advocates for those excluded from the federal stimulus funds, including some dependent college students and undocumented immigrants.

“There is somebody you know who is left out of this $1,200 relief bill,” said Layla Elqutami PO ’22, one of the group’s founders. 

Elqutami and another founder, Yamile Sandoval PO ’21, said the crisis’s impact on their families spurred them to action.

“I personally have family in the hospital with COVID-19, and they have to deal with money,” Elqutami said, expressing frustration that she has been forced to depend on money from GoFundMe for healthcare, rather than federal funding. 

“That is something that takes a toll on students,” she said.

Sandoval is from Brownsville, Texas, but is currently living in Mexico due to an unstable housing situation. Her mother is retired and received a $1,200 stimulus check. But Sandoval is claimed as a dependent, so she didn’t receive any aid.

“There’s this idea that college students are completely supported financially by their parents, which is not true,” Sandoval said. “Even if they were, they should get the $500 that minors get. It just doesn’t make any sense.”

Organizer Sarah Sundermeyer PO ’21 said COVID-19 Aid for All has grown to about 50 students from the Claremont Colleges and beyond.

“We are divided into regional and task-based teams, and then we meet up about once a week as a larger group to debrief and coordinate amongst the teams,” Sundermeyer said.

The COVID-19 Aid for All Facebook page, which has over 650 likes as of May 20, is sharing information about the stimulus, gathering signatures for a petition and collecting stories about the effects of coronavirus and its associated financial impact on students and their families.

One of the group’s primary aims, Sundermeyer said, is to reach out to political leaders. Through their Facebook group, the organizers are putting citizens in contact with their representatives and providing phone and email scripts. 

“Our main goal right now is to demonstrate to representatives that there is a really broad base of constituent support for equitable aid for these groups,” she said. 

In addition to focusing on expanding individual stimulus funding, the group also says restrictions based on immigration status should be removed from the nearly $14 billion that the CARES Act allots to college and universities. This includes more than $4 million for the Claremont Colleges.

But official guidance released by the U.S. Department of Education April 22 specified that college emergency relief funds may only be allocated to students eligible for federal financial aid, excluding DACA students as well undocumented students.

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A recent report issued by the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration  — directed by former Pomona Dean of Students Miriam Feldblum — found that there were about 450,000 undocumented students enrolled at colleges and universities across the country.

After House Democrats asked Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to allow colleges and universities discretion over how to distribute stimulus funds, the Education Department defended its decision in a statement written by spokeswoman Angela Morabito.

“It is absurd that Democrats want to send U.S. taxpayer money to noncitizens, especially given how many American students are in need of this emergency relief. Colleges and universities have the freedom to help their DACA students, they just cannot use U.S. federal taxpayer dollars in order to do so,” Morabito said.

But Sundermeyer sees it differently.

“I got involved in this movement just out of this really deep sense of rage over the fact that even during a global catastrophe, our government is still willing to exclude people over their immigration or tax status,” Sundermeyer said.

For many of the group’s founders, this is not their first time organizing together. Many of the student organizers worked previously for the College Community Action Network 5C advocacy group. On top of school work, the stress of lockdown and financial instability, the organizers are enacting plans to reach a broader national audience.

COVID-19 Aid for All is currently working on reaching out to about 150 colleges across the country to raise awareness for their mission through student governments, College Democrats organizations and immigrant rights groups, Sundermeyer said.

COVID-19 Aid for All organizers in Massachusetts attended a virtual town hall in late April hosted by Massachusetts Rep. Joseph Kennedy III and asked him about his plans to support immigrants, students and others left out of the relief bill, according to organizer Peter Hodge PO ’22.

“Immigrants in general should be included in the economic stimulus bill because … they are facing the same economic challenges as everyone else, they also pay taxes and they make up a huge portion of the economy,” Hodge said. “We’re in a crisis right now, and to play the xenophobic political game … is just wrong.”

In California, funding has been funneled specifically towards those communities excluded from federal relief. Gov. Gavin Newsom announced $125 million in relief funding to undocumented workers in April.

In Sandoval’s view, the government should guarantee basic human rights at all times, not just during a pandemic. 

“People should have basic support from the government at all times. People should always have Medicare, not just when there’s a pandemic; people should not be kicked out of their house, not just when it’s a pandemic; people should have access to food all the time, not just during a pandemic,” Sandoval said. “I’m going to continue to advocate for those things afterwards, whether or not it’s through the organization.”

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