EL PASO, Texas -- El Paso County Commissioner David Stout proposed dipping into the county's reserves to provide cash assistance to undocumented immigrants who were not eligible for stimulus funds provided by the federal government under the CARES Act.
"These are the folks who put food on your tables. These are the folks that work on the restaurants, that work in the fields, that work in (the) hospitality industry that are having difficulties right now," Stout said.
After a lengthy discussion Tuesday, the El Paso County Commissioners Court voted to provide $1 million in rental assistance to people who may be having a hard time paying for their rent or their mortgage as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. The money will come from funds allocated through the CARES Act and the county's General Assistance Office will process the requests from residents who live outside the city of El Paso's limits and within El Paso county.
Commissioner Stout argued the funds would not trickle down to undocumented immigrants because the county requires the requestor to provide proof of residence.
"The rental assistance program has had limited utilization within the undocumented community because some folks don't have a rental agreement or a utility bill under their name so it's very difficult to prove that they reside out in the county," he said.
Assitant County Attorney Christina Sanchez told the court that the county has to make sure they follow the criteria established by the U.S. Treasury Department as they consider how the funds are used.
"It doesn't directly exclude any money directed towards undocumented populations," Sanchez said. "My understanding is that there is not an exact criteria that they shall be excluded, however, there is criteria that the county is required to abide by in terms of trying to figure out if an individual in fact resides in the county."
Another proposal included issuing debit cards that could be used to pay for food, child care and medication. Stout also suggested debit cards to be issued without any restrictions on what they could be used for.
"I don't know if anyone on the court received a government check and if you did, you were not told by the federal government how to spend that money," he said. "It seems we should be providing the same type of liberty to the folks we're looking at possibly providing an economic stimulus for."
As it reworked the proposals several times, commissioners could not agree on a way to clearly move forward with financial assistance for undocumented immigrants with the uncertainty of whether their decision would be in line with federal guidelines and whether the funds would have to be re-paid from the general fund or even the reserves. Commissioners also considered funneling the money through Project Bravo, a non-profit that provides rental and utility.
County staff brought up other communities that have approved using their reserves to provide assistance that reaches undocumented immigrants, too. On May 19, a divided Harris County court voted 3-2 to designate $30 million from its reserves for a Covid-19 Relief Fund. And in April, the city of Austin set aside $15 million for direct assistance to residents, also from their reserves.
County administrator Betsy Keller urged commissioners to address the urgent need for rent assistance and move forward with a disbursement program they could implement immediately through the county's General Assistance budget.
County Judge Ricardo Samaniego and Commissioners Vince Perez, Carl Robinson and Carlos Leon voted for the plan to address the gap for rental and mortgage assistance through the in-house department. Commissioner Stout felt differently.
"I'm going to vote No. I think we'd be better off utilizing a trusted community partner. It seems to me that we want to have the deepest impact possible," said Stout, who disclosed he is a board member for Project Bravo.
"The reason why we started talking about this is to help out folks who were left out of the stimulus," he insisted.
"I know where your heart is," Commissioner Leon told him, "and there's a lot of folks out there who were left out but we're sitting here talking about… we've asked our staff to cut 3 percent, we're looking at the possibility of cutting wages, maybe layoffs in the future. That's why I'm so opposed to General Fund money," said Leon. "We just don't know where we're going to be in a few months and I just don't want to land on the shoulders of our employees."