Since the relief can be considered short-term emergency funds, there’s no reason to deny immigrants access.
A federal court in Phoenix, Arizona, has found that the city wrongfully excluded non-citizen aliens in the United States from coronavirus-related housing relief.
According to AZCentral.com, the judge determined that Phoenix cannot legally exclude “unqualified aliens” from federally funded coronavirus relief programs by requiring that applicants show proof of legal immigration status.
The lawsuit was filed by the William E. Morris Institute for Justice and the Arizona Center for Law on behalf of immigration advocacy groups Poder in Action and the Arizona Dream Coalition. An individual Phoenix resident was also included as a plaintiff.
Collectively, they asserted that Phoenix had no right to deny emergency funds to anyone, regardless of their citizenship or immigration status.
In his ruling, Judge Dominic Lanza, the court directed Phoenix to permit non-citizen immigrants—regardless of whether they are documented or not—to apply for and receive aid for housing-related expenses, such as rent and utilities.
AZCentral.com notes that federal law generally prohibits disbursing federal benefits to anyone who is not a U.S. citizen or legal resident. In this case, however, the judge found that Phoenix’s aid programs are best considered short-term emergency relief rather than regular cash benefits.
In his ruling, Judge Dominic Lanza said it’s best to treat such aid as short-term relief because the money awarded to applicants cannot be used as cash—the payments are sent directly to landlords, mortgage companies, and utilities providers.
Phoenix, for its part, said that it only moved to exclude undocumented immigrants based on its counsel’s interpretation of federal law.
“We need to help as many people as possible during this health crisis,” Phoenix Councilmember Debra Stark said in a Wednesday statement.
However, not all the city’s leadership agrees with Lanza’s ruling. Councilmember Jim Waring, for instance, said he does not believe that Congress had intended or wanted anyone who was not a U.S. citizen to access coronavirus relief funds.
Still, Waring admitted that the opaque conditions which led to litigation could have been avoided.
“If Congress wrote a clearer bill, we wouldn’t be in this situation,” he said.
In a statement, city spokesman Nick Valenzuela said that Phoenix has instructed the contractors running its aid programs that “citizenship status is no longer an eligibility requirement to receive Coronavirus funding assistance for rent and utility payments.”
Poder in Action has since released a social media statement celebrating the victory.
“Remember when we sued the City of Phoenix?” the group wrote on Twitter. “WE WON!!! Today, the court ruled the city wrongfully excluded COVID relief funds from immigrants. All immigrants should be allowed to apply for relief funds with no immigration verification by TOMORROW.”