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Undocumented Immigrants Excluded from Harris County’s Guaranteed Income Program Launch

Houston’s guaranteed income initiative, “Uplift Harris,” faced controversy as it was revealed that undocumented immigrants residing in the city would not be eligible to apply for the program, which was initially set to launch earlier this week but was postponed. Under “Uplift Harris,” families living in poverty were slated to receive monthly checks of $500 for a year and a half as part of a new county initiative.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo clarified during Tuesday’s commissioner’s court meeting that undocumented immigrants would be excluded from the program due to its reliance on federal funds. Hidalgo expressed regret over the limitation, stating, “If we support the economy more broadly, that supports all of us versus leaving people out artificially.”

In response to queries from Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey, Harris County Public Health Department Director Barbie Robinson confirmed that undocumented individuals were not eligible for the monthly checks.

The recent clarification comes after a summer of controversy regarding the eligibility of undocumented residents for the “Uplift Harris” program. When the pilot program was initially announced in June, Hidalgo had indicated that it would be open to everyone in the county who was eligible, following guidance from County Attorney Christian Menefee.

Although the undocumented community cannot participate in the current financial assistance program, Hidalgo expressed her intention to create a similar initiative in the future, possibly funded by private sources.

Harris County commissioners did not specify the exact date when the application portal would open, but they expressed the hope of receiving applications starting Friday, Jan. 12. The “Uplift Harris” program, approved in June 2023, aims to provide low-income residents with $500 a month over 18 months.

The $20.5 million program is funded through federal American Rescue Plan Act dollars obtained by the county in March 2021 following the COVID-19 pandemic. It targets 1,928 local families and residents living 200 percent below the federal poverty line, with eligibility criteria outlined for specific Houston neighborhoods.

Participants will be selected through a randomized system, and payments can be used as recipients see fit. Selected participants can expect notifications in mid-February, with the first $500 payments scheduled for March.

Commissioners met for over an hour in executive session on Tuesday, followed by an open-court discussion with Robinson to address last-minute questions. Robinson and the county’s public health department will oversee the program, working with a third-party vendor to evaluate the impact of additional funds on participants’ lives.

The initiative aligns with efforts in other cities such as Austin, Cook County (Chicago), and Los Angeles County, aiming to address financial challenges faced by low-income residents. According to a 2023 Kinder Institute report, a significant percentage of Houstonians struggle to afford unexpected expenses, with racial disparities in financial stability highlighted in the survey results.