The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

IC Councilor Mazahir Salih advocates for more funding, outreach to immigrant community

Salih said there are barriers related to language, religion, and culture that prevent immigrants and immigrant-led organizations in Iowa City from receiving grant funding.
Mazahir Salih interacts at her watch party at fix! Coffee on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023. Salih was reelected to her seat on the city council after receiving the highest number of votes. (Sahithi Shankaiahgari/The Daily Iowan)

Iowa City Mayor Pro Tem and City Councilor Mazahir Salih expressed concerns over the city’s relationship with its immigrant community and the grant funding opportunities they may be missing out on.

These concerns were raised at the city council’s Feb. 6 meeting, where the council was discussing an amendment to a federal grant application that the city has been working on for nearly two years.

Salih is the Executive-founding Director of the Welcome Network of Johnson County and the former Executive Director of the Center for Worker Justice.

The grant program, known as HOME-ARP, is overseen by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. According to the department’s website, the program aims to assist unhoused individuals with things like rental assistance, supportive services, and homeless shelters.

It’s a brand new program, which has presented challenges for Iowa City city staff in terms of following the rules and stipulations of the program in their application, Erika Kubly, the city’s neighborhood services coordinator, said.

One of these challenges has been having to amend the application a few different times, such as on Feb. 6.

At the Feb. 6 meeting, city staff notified the council the application had to be changed to exclude or amend some programs the city originally applied for so the application would comply with the rules, according to the agenda.

Kubly said the program is specific and stipulates that funding can only be used for supporting unhoused individuals or those who are fleeing from domestic violence situations, which has contributed to the need to make changes to the application. She said funding should be in place for projects to begin in the next two to three months.

One program that was completely cut was a rental assistance program because of more clarification from the state on how the HOME-ARP program works, the agenda states. The city first anticipated that there would be a requirement for a local government to match the funds it’s requesting for renter assistance, but that was clarified as not being a rule.

“As there is no longer a need to have funds set aside for that purpose, this [a]mendment removes the Rental Housing Development line item from the budget,” the agenda states.

At the meeting, Salih objected to the rental assistance program no longer being funded through this grant program as this assistance would greatly benefit the immigrant community, which she is a part of.

Ultimately, all councilors except Salih voted to approve the amendment as this change was the last step in the process of getting this grant program going. While the councilors agreed with Salih’s concerns, they said they did not want to postpone the process of helping other local organizations any longer.

At the meeting, Mayor Bruce Teague suggested using the remaining unallocated COVID-19 relief funds the city was awarded toward a rental assistance program. The city was given $18.3 million in 2021. According to city staff, there is approximately $2 million that has not yet been designated for any projects.

“Some of those challenges, absolutely we want to make sure that we are doing the best that we can with this one-time opportunity,” Teague said. “But I also know that there are people who have been waiting for these funds since 2021.”

Councilor Laura Bergus said she appreciates Salih’s concerns but thinks it would be unwise to delay the allocation of funding any further.

“At this stage, if the money is about to go out the door, I think we can try and encourage those organizations to ensure that they’re doing the outreach to get to those communities that you’re concerned aren’t being reached right now,” Bergus said.

In an interview with The Daily Iowan, Salih said she the immigrant community often does not get included in grant opportunities like this one.

Salih said she greatly respects the work organizations like Shelter House — which will receive nearly $700,000 from this program — do for the homeless community, but there is a need for immigrant-led organizations to be funded to better connect with immigrants and refugees.

Aside from Shelter House, two other local organizations are also receiving grant funding to assist unhoused individuals or those who are at risk of becoming unhoused. Those organizations are Iowa Legal Aid, which will receive $200,000, and the Domestic Violence Intervention Program, which will receive $650,000.

There are often language, cultural, and religious barriers that prevent immigrants and refugees from going to organizations that are not led by immigrants, Salih said. These barriers may also contribute to a lack of outreach to the immigrant community, meaning organizations led by immigrants are not even aware of grant application opportunities in the first place, she said.

Tracy Hightshoe, the director for the city’s neighborhood and development services department, said while the organizations being funded are not explicitly geared toward immigrants and refugees, they do not turn those communities away.

“From our perspective, no matter who we fund through a nonprofit provider, they don’t exclude refugees or immigrants,” Hightshoe said. “They’re still serving those people that come to them, that may be immigrants or refugees. It’s just that they don’t have a preference, or are basically saying our services are limited to the refugee or immigrant community.”

A potential way to increase engagement and outreach to the city’s immigrant and refugee community is for immigrant-oriented organizations to join the Johnson County Local Homeless Coordinating Board, Hightshoe said. This board has monthly meetings, and it would be easier to spread information about new opportunities to the community if members of immigrant organizations attend, she said.

Some examples of local immigrant-centric organizations are the Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa, the Iowa City Catholic Worker House, Open Heartland, and the Immigrant Welcome Network of Johnson County. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 14 percent of Iowa City’s population was born outside of the U.S.

Salih said she will continue pushing for more diversity and inclusion not just in funding opportunities but also in the very makeup of Iowa City’s local government. She said the more diverse government employees are, the less of a chance there is for the needs of marginalized communities to go unnoticed.

“I will keep reminding the city every single day and reminding my fellow council members about who is in this community,” Salih said. “Those immigrants are very hard-working people. They bring a lot of good into this community, and I think they deserve to be treated the same as anyone else in this community.”

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About the Contributor
Isabelle Foland
Isabelle Foland, News Editor
Isabelle Foland is a second-year student at the University of Iowa majoring in Journalism and Mass Communication and minoring in Spanish. She is a second-year news reporter at The Daily Iowan, reporting mainly on Iowa City City Council. She is from Missouri Valley, Iowa and has reported for her hometown paper prior to her time at The DI.