Congress must include immigrant workers and students in next round of COVID relief

Thousands of work authorized immigrants are risking their health as essential workers to keep our country running during a pandemic, so why has federal coronavirus relief written off immigrant workers and students? With the start of school well underway on campuses and in communities, it is incumbent on Congress to support all workers, students, and families harmed by the continuing pandemic. The next legislation responding to COVID-19 must prioritize automatically extending work authorization and the underlying status for all work-authorized immigrants, including those with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA); and ensure that emergency educational financial assistance is available to all students. 

Recent polling[1] by the New Paradigm Strategy Group indicates national support for COVID-19 relief for immigrant workers and students. The majority of respondents (55%) agreed that the federal government should automatically extend work permits for immigrants with permission to work in the United States in light of COVID-19, while only a quarter disagreed. A majority of  respondents (57%) also agreed that all financially needy students enrolled in our nation’s colleges and universities, regardless of their immigration status, should be eligible for emergency COVID-19 grants from Congress; less than a quarter (23%) disagreed.

Despite great personal risk during the pandemic, work authorized immigrants are on the front lines of essential industries that keep our country running, including 200,000 DACA recipients according to the Center of American Progress.[2] Moreover, there are approximately 216,000 DACA-eligible students in higher education, all ineligible for federal financial aid.[3] These students work to both support their families and fund their education. The extension of work permits is absolutely critical to allow them to pursue their studies.

The agency responsible for processing work permits, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), is struggling to function under an application backlog of over 2.3 million cases.[4] Coupled with a global pandemic, the delays have made it substantially more likely that thousands of people won’t be unable to renew their work permits on time. Buckling under a historic budget crisis during a pandemic, USCIS reduced capacity and cut services to delay furloughs. The agency narrowly avoided furloughing nearly 70 percent of its staff this month by slashing services, and stakeholders already received notice that USCIS is unable to reliably print secure documents like green cards or work permits on time for the foreseeable future.[5]

In July, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) also released new DACA application restrictions that will make it far more difficult, if not functionally impossible, for recipients to apply for their status renewal on time.[6] Applicants face their own COVID-19 barriers, including job loss, restricted access to legal service providers, job loss in the economic recession, and the continuously spreading illness. Without intervention, millions of work authorized immigrants, including over 600,000 DACA recipients, are at risk of losing their legal permission to work at no fault of their own.

The time to support thousands of taxpaying immigrant workers and students is long past due. The public stands behind our immigrant workers and students, and Congress must act. This relief will not only benefit hundreds of thousands of people affected by COVID-19, but their families, communities, and the nation’s continued economic recovery. Congress must step up, act on legislation, and ensure that the next round of COVID-19 relief automatically extends work permits for work authorized immigrants; and that emergency education grants are available to all students, regardless of immigration status.

Miriam Feldblum is the Executive Director of the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration.

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[1] Presidents’ All. on Higher Educ. & Immigr. & New Paradigm Strategy Grp., Immigration and Education – NP Omnibus Results for August 2020 (2020), available at

[2] Nicole Prchal Svajlenka, A Demographic Profile of DACA Recipients on the Frontlines of the Coronavirus Response, Ctr. for Am. Progress (Apr. 6, 2020, 9:01 AM),

[3] Presidents’ All. on Higher Educ. & Immigr & New Am. Econ., Undocumented Students in Higher Education: How Many Students are in U.S. Colleges and Universities, and Who Are They? (2020), available at

[4] AILA Policy Brief: USCIS Processing Delays Have Reached Crisis Levels Under the Trump Administration, American Immigration Lawyers Association, AILA Doc. No. 19012834, Jan. 30, 2019, available at

[5] Electronic Letter from U.S. Department of Homeland Security to Stakeholders on Ombudsman’s Alert: Card Production Delays at USCIS (Jul. 21, 2020), available at; USCIS Averts Furlough of Nearly 70% of Workforce, U.S. Cit. & Immigr. Servs. (Aug. 25, 2020),

[6] Presidents’ All. on Higher Educ. & Immigr., Stealth Rescission: An Analysis of the Impact of the Secretary’s July 2020 Memorandum on DACA (2020), available at; Memorandum from Chad F. Wolf, Acting Secretary, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to Mark Morgan, Senior Official Performing the Duties of Commissioner, Matthew Albence, Senior Official Performing the Duties of Director, Joseph Edlow, Deputy Director of Policy, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services on Reconsideration of the June 15, 2012 Memorandum Entitled “Exercising Prosecutorial Discretion with Respect to Individuals Who Came to the United States as Children” (July 28, 2020), available at