WASHINGTON

A federal judge in Washington, D.C. has sided with Native American tribes seeking to challenge the way the Trump administration wants to disburse badly-needed coronavirus relief funds.  

US District Court Judge Amit Mehta ruled late Monday that the administration cannot give the funds to for-profit Native corporations, at least for now, issuing a preliminary injunction to stop the plan as litigation continues.

Tribes, which are sovereign under US law, were allocated $8 billion under a congressional plan known as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to mitigate the economic fallout caused by the novel coronavirus.

The Treasury Department had sought to provide the funding to Alaska Native corporations instead of the 574 tribes that have federal recognition, prompting lawsuits from over a dozen tribal governments.

“Reading the CARES Act to allow the Secretary to disburse Title V dollars to for-profit corporations does not jibe with the Title’s general purpose of funding the emergency needs of ‘governments,’” Mehta wrote in his decision.

“These are monies that Congress appropriated on an emergency basis to assist Tribal governments in providing core public services to battle a pandemic that is ravaging the nation, including in Indian country,” he added.

Plans to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus within the country have largely kept people at home, limiting their interactions while shuttering non-essential businesses. Many businesses deemed essential during the pandemic have operated with significantly drawn-down capacity.

The two combined have been a devastating blow to the American economy, and the ramifications have been particularly hard-felt on Native reservations which are already disproportionately in poverty and have high rates of health conditions that make individuals particularly susceptible to dying from COVID-19.

Eugene Tso, a local representative on the Navajo Nation Council, broke into tears during an emotional plea explaining the plight of his people during the pandemic.

“I don’t think there’s any words I can say to [show] how much I am worried about the people on the reservation and my community,” he said, sobbing during an interview with the UK’s Channel 4 News.

“We ask for help. There’s nothing coming in. So I am worried about them. Can’t sleep. Can’t think right.”

The Navajo Nation, which spans parts of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona, joined the lawsuit last week.

Navajo President Jonathan Nez told the British outlet he has already spent $4 million from his nation’s coffers and is closely tracking his expenses to reclaim them following what he hopes will be a legal victory against the administration.

“I’m keeping all these receipts because after this emergency operation, I will be giving those receipts to Uncle Sam for a full reimbursement,” he said. “These dollars that were allocated by Congress and signed into law by the president are moneys to help U.S. citizens. And it seems alarming that the first citizens of this country are kind of pushed to the backburner, but that has been the case for many, many years.”

Mehta’s ruling is not the final word on the Trump administration’s plan, merely putting it on hold while additional court battles play out. The administration could conceivably still hold on to the money with the intent to disburse it to Native for-profit corporations in the event that it wins further legal proceedings.

Should it choose to do so, tribal governments would continue to reel amid a pandemic that has already had devastating economic and health consequences.

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