Federal judge: Phoenix was wrong to exclude some immigrants from COVID aid

By: - December 9, 2020 3:23 pm

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Phoenix was wrong to exclude some immigrants from applying for COVID-19 rent, mortgage and utility assistance under a program funded with federal dollars, a federal judge ruled on Wednesday.

Since May, the City of Phoenix has shut out residents with no permanent immigration status from a $24 million emergency rent, mortgage and utility assistance program. Other local governments in Arizona, including Maricopa County and Tucson, have no restrictions for immigration status when distributing emergency coronavirus relief funds. 

In July, community groups Poder in Action, the Arizona Dream Act Coalition, and Phoenix resident Aurora Galan Mejia filed a lawsuit challenging Phoenix’s practice of excluding some immigrants from aid. They claimed the city is wrong in choosing to apply immigration status criteria to emergency coronavirus relief aid. Attorneys for the city defended the policy, and said applicants have to meet “lawful presence” requirements because of a 1996 welfare reform law, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), which generally says “that only citizens and qualified immigrants can obtain federal public benefits.”

U.S. District Judge Dominic Lanza said on Dec. 9 that this interpretation is wrong. 

“The City is not required by PRWORA to exclude unqualified aliens from participating in the Program (because the Program falls within PRWORA’s exception for “short-term, non-cash, in-kind emergency disaster relief”), and that the City’s choice to exclude unqualified aliens from the Program is therefore preempted by federal law,” Lanza wrote. 

The city will immediately notify the nonprofit that administers the program, Wildfire, of the change in eligibility requirements, Mary O’Grady, an attorney with the city, said during a Wednesday morning court hearing. This means Phoenix residents previously excluded from the assistance will be able to apply for relief aid meant to help renters and homeowners stay in their homes and pay for their utilities despite loss of income.

“We expect this to happen as quickly as humanly possible,” O’Grady said. “We are going to go through the formalities of amending the contract, but the notification of the court’s orders will change the process.”

City spokesman Nick Valenzuela said all residents regardless of immigration status can immediately apply for housing and utility assistance. 

“We have communicated with Wildfire and their participating Community Action Associations that based on the federal judge’s order, citizenship status is no longer an eligibility requirement to receive Coronavirus funding assistance for rent and utility payments,” he said in an email.

Resident: It’s ‘sad’ Phoenix chose to exclude people during a pandemic

Phoenix funds its COVID-19 rent, mortgage and utility assistance program with $293 million federal funds it received through the CARES Act, a $2.1 trillion economic relief law Congress passed in March amid the pandemic. The city must spend all CARES Act funds by Dec. 30. 

Until the Dec. 9 court order, the application for the program required proof of immigration status, which excludes city residents with temporary protections like recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, persons with Temporary Protected Status, asylum applicants, U-Visa holders who are victims of serious crimes and others.

As of Dec. 2, Phoenix had granted almost $17 million in rent, mortgage and utility assistance, according to Valenzuela.

Noemi Garcia was left out of this help. 

“It’s been really hard. Despite us contributing a lot to this country, we aren’t helped,” Garcia said. “Everytime there is a benefit, we are excluded.” 

Garcia has no immigration status and no authorization to work in the country. She’s lived in Phoenix for almost 20 years. 

Fighting back tears, Garcia explained that 2020 has been the hardest year for her. She lost her job of 19 years in March. Her daughter, after graduating from high school in May, joined the Army and left their north Phoenix home. 

She said she’s felt powerless, with nowhere to turn.

“This is a country that has given us so many opportunities, but when we need it the most, it closes its doors on us,” Garcia told Arizona Mirror in Spanish. “I have a lot to be thankful for, my life has changed here, but I think it has been achieved also because of my work, our work.”

The economic fallout from the pandemic has meant struggles not only for her, her husband and two daughters, but also for her family in Mexico who relies on money she sends them. 

At Poder in Action, one of the groups that sued the city, Garcia has found some economic help. The group is part of a network of community organizations that have raised funds to help undocumented families in Arizona. Garcia said she has also been seeing a psychologist through Poder’s assistance services.

The Arizona Undocumented Workers Relief Fund has raised about $1.7 million, according to Viridiana Hernandez, executive director of Poder in Action. 

Hernandez told the Phoenix City Council during a meeting Tuesday that some families have gotten into debt, and others have lost their homes because Phoenix chose to exclude them from emergency aid.

“That has been devastating… Devastating to watch, devastating to witness,” she said.

Phoenix practice of exclusion is unique 

While for most of the year Phoenix chose to require residents seeking housing and utility aid provide proof of immigration status, Maricopa County didn’t. Neither did Tucson. 

“We do not need to verify immigration status of the person. Therefore, the rental and utility programs assist all applicants of the City of Tucson jurisdiction,” said Liz Morales, Tucson’s housing and community development director.

Morales said 1,087 households have been approved for assistance amounting to almost $2 million in aid distributed, as of Dec. 1.  

The Maricopa County Human Services Department funded a rental assistance program with $30 million in CARES Act funding. It has helped 5,371 households with almost $24 million, according to the county

“There are no immigration status requirements to be eligible for that aid,” said county spokesman Fields Mosley in an email. 

The Tucson and Maricopa County programs are no longer accepting applications.

With Lanza, the judge, ruling that Phoenix shouldn’t exclude residents with no permanent immigration status access to coronavirus relief aid, there’s a chance some undocumented immigrants will get help they’ve been denied. 

Applications for the Phoenix program, which provides one-time aid of up to $3,300 for rent or mortgage payments and $900 for utility bills, are still open, said Tamra Ingersoll, a city spokeswoman, on Tuesday.

For Maria Gutierrez, any aid would be a “blessing.”

“Any small relief is welcome,” she said. 

Her husband was detained by federal immigration agents in May and deported in October. One of her daughters works in retail, and fears the exposure to COVID-19 that comes with the job, while her son works in a warehouse. 

She said they can’t afford to get sick: Sometimes, they have bought less food to make their monthly mortgage payment of $1,600. Gutierrez said it’s sad Phoenix chose to shut immigrants out of funds they are entitled to. 

“How sad that they are taking away our right that, I think, as human beings we deserve, because of the fact that we contribute to this city,” she said. “We are in the shadows. No one sees us. I hope they give us the right that we deserve. There shouldn’t be differences in a time of a pandemic.”

City adds $3 million for COVID-19 housing, utility aid

At a City Council meeting tuesday, Phoenix leaders voted unanimously to allocate an additional $3.3 million in CARES Act funds to the rental, mortgage and utility aid program. 

Hernandez, from Poder in Action, urged the council to prioritize the additional funds for residents excluded from the program because of their immigration status, or lack thereof. 

“This should’ve never happened, we are asking y’all to allocate all of the funds, or as much as possible, directly to go to these communities, but especially to prioritize the communities that were excluded that shouldn’t have,” she said. 

Councilwoman Laura Pastor and Councilman Carlos Garcia also said they wanted the additional funds to be prioritized for previously excluded residents. 

That won’t happen, said city spokeswoman Stephanie Bracken. 

“The total was $3.3 million allocated to our partner Wildfire to distribute to applicants for rent and utility assistance,” she said in an email Wednesday night.  

The city has about $6 million available in its rental, mortgage and utility assistance program, said Valenzuela, the other city spokesman.

Visit wildfireaz.org/phxcares/ to apply for aid.

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Laura Gómez
Laura Gómez

Laura Gómez Rodriguez previously covered state politics and immigration for the Arizona Mirror.