The funds are available until Dec. 30 to any Phoenix resident who has been financially impacted by the pandemic.
Update: This story has been updated with a response from the City of Phoenix.
A U.S. District Court judge has ruled that the City of Phoenix cannot exclude immigrants from applying for emergency relief funds that would have assisted them in paying their rent and utilities during the pandemic.
Poder in Action, an Arizona-based nonprofit that advocates for policy changes in part to improve the lives of immigrants, filed a lawsuit against the city in July saying that it had wrongfully excluded several groups of immigrants from taking advantage of the relief program.
In April, Phoenix received $293 million from the federal government to be used toward relief for the coronavirus pandemic, $25.7 million of which was used to create a program to help residents pay their utility bills, mortgages and rent.
But Phoenix required that applicants to the program provide proof of their qualified legal status in the U.S., effectively barring DACA recipients, those seeking asylum, and immigrants who were the victims of serious crimes from applying, according to the complaint filed against the city by Poder.
“Congress intended to provide resources to local governments to address the economic and health hardships brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and to meet the needs of their communities,” the complaint read. “The City’s policy undermines these goals.”
In a court ruling on Wednesday, Dec. 9, Judge Dominic Lanza said the city could not exclude certain immigrants from using the program.
Viridiana Hernandez, the executive director for Poder, told The Copper Courier Wednesday that she was happy at the judge’s decision but frustrated that so many immigrants in the community were excluded in the first place.
“For us, immigrants are the backbone of the city. They are the reason many of us have had the ability to stay home,” Hernandez said. “In this moment they are the ones that are being hit the hardest.”
Hernandez said the exclusion sent a clear message about the priorities of the City Council, and that she wants acknowledgement from the city, and Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego, about the harm that was done to immigrant communities.
“The reason that communities got excluded is that [the city] didn’t feel they were important enough to begin with,” Hernandez said. “Regardless of the acknowledgement, we hope that our community sees that there are people and there are organizations…that do believe and will see that our value and our rights are respected.”
A Phoenix spokesperson said the city had told Wildfire, which administers the city’s rent and utility assistance, that citizenship status would no longer be a requirement to receive coronavirus funding assistance.
After federal funds were disbursed to Phoenix in April, the city began formulating eligibility requirements for the rent and utility assistance program, according to court filings.
To do so, the city referenced the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), a federal statute enacted in 1996 that stipulates “an alien who is not a qualified alien” cannot receive any federal public benefit, unless certain exceptions apply.
Phoenix said the COVID-19 relief funds were a federal public benefit that required any applicants to provide “proof of qualified legal status in the U.S.”
This excluded recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, people with Temporary Protected Status, asylum applicants and U-Visa holders who are victims of serious crimes from accessing the funds, according to the complaint from Poder.
“As a result of the City’s unlawful restriction, immigrants who otherwise would qualify to participate in the program may lose their homes, be evicted, or have their utilities shut off,” the complaint read.
Danny Adelman, an attorney with the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, said that other cities and jurisdictions did not impose the same restrictions as Phoenix when it came to disbursing funds.
But exceptions also exist under the law, exceptions which Poder said should have applied in this situation.
Poder contended that the COVID-19 relief funds fall under a PRWORA exception for “short-term, non-cash, in-kind emergency disaster relief.”
Judge Lanza agreed.
“There is no dispute that the Program delivers benefits that are ‘short-term’ in duration,” he wrote in his findings. “Nor is there any dispute that the Program qualifies as ‘emergency disaster relief.’”
Adelman, who represented Poder in its case against the city, said Poder attempted to explain the exemptions to the city before they implemented the policy, but that it would not change its position.
“We always believed that was wrong. It really left us no choice but to go to court,” he said. “We were right all along.”
What’s next for those seeking relief?
According to court filings, Phoenix said it would allow immigrants to participate in the program following any declaratory judgement against them, which Lanza granted on Wednesday.
In a statement posted to Twitter, Poder said that all immigrants who previously could not apply for relief funds should be allowed to apply for relief funds with no immigration verification by tomorrow.
According to Adelman, Phoenix had said explicitly that it would instruct its employees in charge of the emergency relief program to stop imposing the requirement for immigrants.
“There are people that need to get informed, so it should happen immediately, whether that’s today or tomorrow,” Adelman said.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the only eligibility requirements listed on Wildfire were that applicants be residents of Phoenix and that they were financially impacted by the pandemic.
The financial assistance for rent and utilities is only available through Dec. 30, so Adelman said individuals should apply for assistance as soon as possible.
“It’s very important that people who have been harmed by COVID financially apply as quickly as they can,” he said.