Last July, local immigrant advocacy groups Poder in Action and the Arizona Dream Act Coalition, as well as a Phoenix resident and a DACA recipient who was denied housing assistance, filed a lawsuit against the city of Phoenix in the U.S. District Court of Arizona alleging that the city illegally denied people without "qualified immigration status" from accessing assistance for housing costs like rent, mortgage payments, and utilities. The $25 million program, officially dubbed the Emergency Utility Rent and Mortgage Assistance Program, was funded through the $293 million that the city received from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act that was passed last spring. It was designed to help Phoenix residents weather the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and keep up with housing costs.
The city had used the "qualified immigration status" definition featured in the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996 to judge who was eligible for the program. The law states that “an alien who is not a qualified alien” can't receive “federal public benefit,” with a few exceptions.
Aurora Galan Mejia, a Phoenix homeowner and DACA recipient who was one of the plaintiffs in the case, alleged in the original complaint that she lost her job during the onset of the pandemic but was unable to apply for housing assistance through the city's program because of her immigration status.
In his ruling, which was issued on December 9, U.S. District Court Judge Dominic W. Lanza sided with the plaintiffs.
"The Court declares that PRWORA does not prohibit unqualified aliens from receiving benefits via the Program and that the City’s choice to exclude unqualified aliens from the Program is preempted by federal law and invalid," he wrote.
"We’re pleased with the ruling, because the ruling says that all immigrants can apply for this type of assistance," said Ellen Sue Katz, director of the William E. Morris Institute for Justice, a non-profit that helped file the lawsuit.
As of the publication of this story, spokespersons for Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego had not provided a response to Phoenix New Times' request for comment on the ruling. But Judge Lanza noted in his order that the city acknowledged that it would "comply with the judgement."
Viri Hernandez, executive director of Poder in Action, said that the ruling produced "mixed feelings."
"It is both great that this is finally the order," she said, before noting that the policy has been impacting the community for months and that the "city was refusing to have conversations about this" before they filed the lawsuit. The city's position showed its "disregard of immigrants in Phoenix who are the backbone of the city," Hernandez said.
A lot of harm was caused by that initial decision, and for some families, wrongfully excluding them from the relief funds produced "irreparable harm," she added.
Judge Lanza's full order is embedded below: