Iowa City considers giving federal rescue funds to undocumented immigrants

Other priorities include eviction prevention, affordable housing, help to nonprofits

IOWA CITY — Iowa City is considering using some of its $18 million in federal pandemic relief funds to help undocumented immigrants.

The recommendations for use of the American Rescue Plan funds, presented to the Iowa City Council at its Tuesday work session, include one-time payments to undocumented adults who were excluded from receiving stimulus checks, unemployment and other federal benefits.

If adopted, the payments would make Iowa City one of the first U.S. cities to provide federal pandemic relief money to undocumented workers.

Iowa City Mayor Bruce Teague said the one-time payments are a “great opportunity.”

“There's been a lot of challenges that people have had, but when I do look at the list, I do find hope and opportunity,” Teague said. “… I also am disheartened by a lot of the needs in our community during this time.”

City Manager Geoff Fruin said the number of individuals who could benefit from the one-time payments is unknown but is likely in the hundreds.

The other three recommendations for the money were eviction prevention services, emergency housing repairs and relocation program, and emergency nonprofit operating assistance.

The four categories of “emergent needs” would require between $3 million and $6 million, according to city estimates.

The city will receive $18.3 million as part of the American Rescue Plan Act, a $1.9 trillion relief package passed by Congress to respond to impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The city received half its funds in May and is expected to receive the remaining funds in May 2022. The money must be allocated by the end of December 2024 and spent by December 2026.

Fruin asked council members to be flexible in their considerations of how to allocate the money since needs and priorities continue to shift.

"We're first out the gate with some of these recommendations,” Fruin said. “We have to expect that things will change.”

The city conducted a public input process over the summer to see how residents would like to see the federal pandemic relief dollars used.

Among the more frequent suggestions were helping undocumented immigrants, providing premium pay for essential workers and investing in affordable housing.

Residents also supported funding for improving access to high-speed internet, expanding mental health services, enhancing public transit and increasing the minimum wage to $15 per hour.

The Fund Excluded Workers Coalition has been asking for federal pandemic relief dollars to go to undocumented immigrants, previously incarcerated individuals and unemployed workers.

Coalition members gathered outside the Iowa City/Johnson County Senior Center ahead of the council meeting and spoke during the council’s public comment period.

Speakers expressed the urgency of supporting excluded workers both with in their comments and with signs — “el tiempo es ahora,” which translates to “the time is now.”

Many speakers said the money being recommended by city staff — $1 million to $1.5 million — isn’t enough, with Emily Sinnwell saying the city should provide $4 million and Johnson County another $4 million.

Sinnwell also provided translation services to speakers who spoke in Spanish during the public comment period.

Workers surveyed

The coalition released a report Monday showing how some undocumented immigrant workers have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many of the workers consider themselves essential workers and said they worried about protecting themselves and their families from the virus. They also worry over being able to pay for food, rent and utilities.

The report is based on a survey of 289 undocumented immigrant workers throughout the state, including ones in Iowa City, Coralville and Cedar Rapids. The survey was conducted June 26 to Aug. 31.

The coalition lists six “solutions” for local and state government, as well as steps for businesses and local organizations:

  • Provide direct cash assistance of $3,200 to immigrant workers excluded from pandemic relief.
  • Hazard pay raises for essential workers making less than $15 per hour.
  • Cancel rent and suspend mortgage payments.
  • Paid sick leave guaranteeing workers 14 days of paid sick leave each year.
  • Scale up affordable housing and expand public transportation.
  • Build statewide immigrant worker power.

More input

Assistant City Manager Rachel Kilburg said additional public input for use of the ARPA funds will be necessary.

The summer public input session focused on emergent needs and big priorities. Future public input sessions will be used to refine focus areas, she said.

For long-term strategic investments, city staff recommended eight categories in alignment with what residents expressed during the public input process.

Among the priorities are supporting BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) businesses, assessing social service needs, affordable housing initiatives, mental health services, workforce development, climate resiliency, supporting small businesses, arts, culture and tourism, public infrastructure and city revenue replacement.

Council reaction

Council members were in agreement with the initial recommendations city staff outlined.

Several council members said they supported more money for affordable housing or speeding up relief efforts for housing repairs with winter weather approaching.

“I think staff has given us a great start here, and I like both the breakdown between the emergent needs and the strategic investments,” council member Susan Mims said. “We need a plan that's going to help us as we go forward and build for the future.”

Since the recommendations were taken up during an work session, the council did not vote on use of the funds. Specific proposals will come back to the council for approval.

Strategic investments could cost anywhere from $15 million to $32 million.

In total, city staff’s recommendations would require $18 million to $38 million for both emergent and strategic investments.

Initial estimates exceed the city’s allocation due to the likely overlap between city and county priorities. Johnson County government is receiving $29.3 million.

Fruin said a next step could be setting up a joint meeting between council members and Johnson County supervisors. The county has scheduled its final ARPA funds public hearing in late October.

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