Phoenix distributes help to refugee businesses, but other immigrant groups left out




Al Zoubani Sweets, a bakery that had to close temporarily due to the pandemic, was able to reopen through a City of Phoenix business grant funded by federal COVID-19 relief dollars. Photo courtesy of International Rescue Committee.

The City of Phoenix has helped about 40 refugee and asylee-owned businesses navigate the economic crisis due the COVID-19 pandemic through grants funded with federal relief dollars. 

Meanwhile, a federal judge is expected to decide soon on a lawsuit against the city for denying federal funds for rental assistance to others who don’t have permanent immigration status in the United States, such as people who are part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

Phoenix received $293 million in Coronavirus relief funds through the CARES Act, a $2.1 trillion federal economic relief bill passed by Congress in April. In May, Phoenix set aside $75 million of those funds for community services for “projects related to the health and safety of residents, small business assistance, and other social assistance programs.” 

The city assigned about $10 million to assist vulnerable populations, among them refugees and asylees, who largely arrived in the U.S. fleeing persecution or violence in their home countries. Phoenix specifically approved $3 million to help this population through small businesses grants, rent and utility assistance and grants to nonprofit groups that serve them.

According to the International Rescue Committee, a refugee resettlement agency which is administering the small business assistance grant program funded by the city, 50 businesses applied for the grants and 40 of them have received assistance.

The IRC has a program that helps refugee and asylee business entrepreneurs start and expand their small businesses. 

“More than 80% of refugee owned businesses in IRC’s Microenterprise Program have reported a substantial loss of income in addition to incurring rising costs associated with 40 refugee-owned business adapting their model to meet enhanced safety standards such as purchasing PPE,” Danielle Luna, the committee’s economic empowerment supervisor, said in an email. “Digital and language limitations have created significant barriers for refugee entrepreneurs when attempting to access COVID-19 aid.”

One business affected by the coronavirus outbreak was Al Zoubani Sweets, a bakery that had to close temporarily due to the pandemic, Luna said. The bakery was accepted for a grant, and the Syrian-owned business used the funds to purchase equipment and supplies needed to return to Phoenix Public Market, Luna said. 

MM Barbershop also had to shut down when the Gov. Doug Ducey ordered beauty salons and barbershops to close in April. Luna said the business owner used aid funds to pay for rent, utilities, “marketing to re-engage customers upon reopening, and supplies to be able to operate the shop according to CDC guidelines.”

The city has also helped about 237 households with refugee community members with about $808,000 in rent and utility assistance, according to city documents. 

But Phoenix has shut out other immigrant groups from federally-funded COVID-19 relief aid meant to help renters and homeowners stay in their homes despite loss of income. 

According to a lawsuit filed in August by Poder in Action and the Arizona Dream Act Coalition, two community organizations who serve immigrant residents and mixed-status families, the City of Phoenix is unlawfully restricting which immigrants can participate in a $24 million utility and rent/mortgage assistance program. They claim the CARES Act does not restrict use of relief funds for those purposes based on immigration status. 

The city requires applicants for rent/mortgage and utility assistance provide proof of legal immigration status, which excludes people with temporary protections like recipients from 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.

“It’s atrocious that the city is taking this position with no real reason,” said Karina Ruiz, executive director of ADAC. “They wanted us to participate in the census, and yet they don’t want us to receive the assistance that our community needs. … It’s cruel.”

Attorneys for the city explain that applicants have to meet “lawful presence” requirements because of a 1996 welfare reform law, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which generally says “that only citizens and qualified immigrants can obtain federal public benefits.

A hearing in the case is scheduled in U.S. District Court on Dec. 9. 

As of Nov. 19, Phoenix had granted more than $12 million in rent and mortgage assistance, according to a city summary of the program. 

Laura Gómez
Reporter Laura Gómez Rodriguez covers state politics and immigration for the Arizona Mirror. She worked for The Arizona Republic and La Voz Arizona for four years, covering city government, economic development, immigration, politics and trade. In 2017, Laura traveled the length of the U.S.-Mexico border for “The Wall,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning project produced by The Arizona Republic and USA Today Network. She was named Best Investigative Reporter by Phoenix Magazine in its 2018 newspaper category and has been honored by the Arizona Press Club for Spanish-language news and feature reporting. She is a native of Bogotá, Colombia and lived in Puerto Rico and Boston before moving to Phoenix in 2014. Catch her researching travel deals, feasting on mariscos or playing soccer.