Undocumented residents falling deeper into debt as they await state stimulus

Immigrant advocates have called on Gov. Phil Murphy to set aside nearly $1B

By: - August 20, 2021 7:05 am

Statewide, Democratic candidates have outraised Republicans more than 3-to-1. (Getty Images)

Monica Galindo lost her husband just as the coronavirus pandemic hit New Jersey. After 20 years of marriage, the 44-year-old mother of three became the only breadwinner of her household.

That same month, she lost her job cleaning houses as pandemic restrictions took hold, and fell behind on rent and light bills. As an undocumented immigrant, she paid taxes but could not claim any unemployment benefits or federal stimulus aid.

Once she heard Gov. Phil Murphy’s announcement of a $40 million fund for these so-called excluded workers in May, Galindo was eager for more news on how to obtain the money she needs, especially as her kids started asking for school supplies.

“We’re all just waiting anxiously that it’ll come soon. I really hope it happens in the coming weeks and months,” she said in Spanish. “I would use it to pay my debts to my generous friends and the bills I haven’t gotten to.”

Galindo, who followed her parents from Mexico to America in 2001, is one of 460,000 undocumented immigrants in the state who haven’t received any direct financial relief since the pandemic started and sent the economy into a spiral.

After more than a year of protests, campouts at the Statehouse, and a 24-day hunger strike with 30 undocumented immigrants, Murphy announced the long-awaited fund, tucked away as part of a $235 million small business package. It would be available to migrant workers and other residents who haven’t been able to claim coronavirus-related funds.

Undocumented immigrants and advocates say they haven’t heard much chatter about the pot of money since Murphy announced it. Neighboring New York opened applications for its similar fund in early August, leaving residents on this side of the Hudson wondering when they’ll be able to seek out funds.

“We’ve waited basically the entire pandemic. It’s been over three months now, and I think we have waited long enough for economic relief,” said Luisa Coral, an undocumented immigrant living in Elizabeth.

Murphy admin promises aid soon

The Department of Human Services is overseeing the distribution of the excluded worker’s fund, the governor’s office said, and hopes to launch applications “by early fall.”

“This program requires an accessible application and reliable system for New Jerseyans to apply for this vital assistance while making sure the funding is received by those for whom it was intended,” said DHS spokeswoman Eva Loayza-McBride.

Itzel Hernandez, an organizer with the American Friends Service Committee in Red Bank, said she’s seen members of her community fall deeper into debt over the last three months, even though there are signs the economy is recovering.

At the height of the pandemic, she said, some money from the state’s Pandemic Relief Fund allowed the organization to distribute gift cards, a vital lifeline to residents who had no recourse.

“Even after the money we provided, we still had a lot of people on our waiting list that are hoping we reach back out to them now,” she said.

Establishing the new program

The new program will be open to New Jerseyans excluded from pandemic assistance with incomes up to $55,000 who have suffered economic relief due to COVID-19, the DHS said in a statement.

It is still begin stood up, Loayza-McBridge said. Once applications open, people will be required to prove their identity, residency in New Jersey, income, exclusion from federal relief, and the impact of the pandemic on their finances.

People who can meet all the requirements can claim up to $1,000, with a household maximum of $2,000.

Loayza-McBridge explained the department is still in the process of building the website, creating and testing a secure online application, and developing a system to verify the money only goes to the intended residents. All this needs to be done to meet federal compliance requirements, she said.

They’re also establishing community outreach with immigrant organizations to spread the word about the application process, and offer support to those who need it, she said.

The $2,000 from the state will help me — anything will be a huge help, but it's not going to be enough. My rent alone is $1,400, and I'm three months behind.

– Luisa Coral, an undocumented immigrant living in Elizabeth

The department did not give a date for when the website will launch or when funds will start being distributed.

The governor’s office has previously said the pot of money will help between 20,000 and 30,000 residents.

Calls for second round of funds

Coral, who also works cleaning houses, said while she’s very grateful the state set aside millions in federal funding for an ailing community, she fears it won’t be enough.

“We don’t want to be ungrateful but it’s very little. We’ve put so much in taxes to this country and this is truly something we need now — we are thousands and thousands affected by this pandemic,” she said. “We support this country too.”

A study by Make the Road New Jersey, a Latino advocacy group based in Elizabeth, found undocumented workers contribute more than $600 million in state and local taxes annually. And over the last decade, undocumented workers paid out more than $1 billion to the state unemployment fund.

The same group calculated that $40 million spread across all the immigrant families who need help — ranging from jobless parents to American spouses to essential workers who got sick — would amount to $96 per person.

“It’s heartbreaking to know that folks are unable to access that money even though they contribute to the system. And I’m concerned for how many more months it will be for those people who aren’t eligible for the $40 million fund,” Hernandez said.

Murphy, a first-term Democrat who focused on immigrant rights and sanctuary cities during his campaign, hinted at a second fund after protestors shut down a section of the NJ Turnpike. The protestors escalated from their prior demonstrations to the 22-car caravan at rush hour in June to demand Murphy add $1 billion in American Rescue Plan dollars to the excluded workers fund.

Make the Road NJ called for the state to set aside $989 million in relief to pay for $600 checks that would equate to the weekly average unemployment benefit, plus a $2,000 stimulus check. They pointed to New York’s fund, which will provide up to $15,600 to eligible workers.

But even as lawmakers and immigrant organizations continue crying out for another fund, community members are getting anxious about when they will receive the money as the state slides into another wave of the pandemic.

Evelyn Saz, an organizer with the National Domestic Workers Alliance, said pandemic-related restrictions were very difficult for undocumented immigrants who had to work harder without any protections, or lost their jobs completely.

“The majority see this as a hope, but they are impatient,” she said. “And it continues to be very little money because these workers didn’t have any benefits.”

Coral, the 30-year-old Elizabeth resident, said the biggest reason she came to the United States from Colombia was to find a better future, and she’s always had a job. When the pandemic hit, she borrowed money from friends and family members who were struggling themselves.

“The $2,000 from the state will help me — anything will be a huge help,” said Coral, “but it’s not going to be enough. My rent alone is $1,400, and I’m three months behind.”


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Sophie Nieto-Munoz
Sophie Nieto-Munoz

Sophie Nieto-Muñoz, a New Jersey native and former Trenton statehouse reporter for NJ.com, shined a spotlight on the state’s crumbling unemployment system and won several awards for investigative reporting from the New Jersey Press Association. She was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists for her report on PetSmart's grooming practices, which was also recognized by the New York Press Club. Sophie speaks Spanish and is proud to connect to the Latinx community through her reporting.