Lawsuit: Phoenix Housing Assistance Program Illegally Bars Immigrants

Phoenix City Hall
Phoenix City Hall City of Phoenix/Facebook
A federally funded housing assistance program run by the city of Phoenix illegally excludes asylum seekers, DACA residents, and others who don't meet "qualified immigration status," a lawsuit by migrant advocates alleges.

"This is emergency housing funds," said Ellen Sue Katz, director of the William E. Morris Institute for Justice, which co-filed the complaint on July 20 in Arizona U.S. District Court. "It’s to keep people from being evicted, it’s to keep them in their homes so that they’re not evicted and put out on the street... That’s the kind of program we claim should be available under federal law to all immigrants, as well as citizens."

The institute joined with the Phoenix-based Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, a nonprofit that works on civil- and human-rights issues, in filing the complaint on behalf of advocacy groups including Poder in Acton and the Arizona Dream Act Coalition.

As the suit explains, the city of Phoenix used an estimated $25 million of the $293 million it received from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to establish a housing assistance program. The program doles out aid for costs like rent, mortgage payments, and utilities in an effort to keep people housed amid the pandemic and cratering economy.

However, the city bars certain immigrants from accessing the program, per the lawsuit. Asylum applicants, recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, and people with Temporary Protected Status are among those who are ineligible for the program. Only immigrant applicants who meet the "qualified immigration status" as defined in the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 are eligible for the program. These restrictions are not in the CARES Act and violate federal law, the lawsuit claims.

"When Congress wanted to limit grants to local governments based on immigration status, it has done so explicitly, including in other sections of the CARES Act," the filing states. "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."

Katz added that the housing assistance program issues payments directly to landlords, mortgage companies, and utility companies, even though tenants are the ones who apply for the aid.

Another plaintiff in the case, Aurora Galan Mejia, is a Phoenix-based DACA recipient and homeowner. After she lost her job amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the suit says, she was unable to apply for housing assistance from the city due to her immigration status.

"Plaintiff is worried that she will not be able to keep up with her mortgage and utility payments and may lose her home," the filing states. "She wants to apply for the City’s emergency housing funds but did not because she is a DACA recipient and is not an immigrant that the City allows to participate in the program."

"The Phoenix metropolitan area is home to many immigrants," the filing adds. "Thousands of immigrants living in Phoenix are adversely affected by the City’s policy and overwhelmingly those persons harmed are members of the Latinx community."

Mari Bourbon, a spokesperson for Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego, did not respond to New Times' requests for comment.

The full complaint is embedded below:

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Josh Kelety is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. Previously, he worked as a reporter for the Inlander and Seattle Weekly.
Contact: Josh Kelety