‘Another door that doesn’t open:’ Hurdles for applicants to N.J. excluded workers fund

Since applications opened in late October, just 400 have been approved

By: - November 29, 2021 7:00 am

Residents applying for the Excluded New Jerseyans Fund have been emailed to upload missing documents, but aren’t told which documents, leading some applications to expire.

When applications finally launched for the Excluded New Jerseyans Fund in late October, residents and immigrant activists rejoiced and began filing applications immediately.

The fund was intended to help undocumented immigrants and other workers who were ineligible for other types of pandemic-related financial aid. But nearly a month after the program started, immigrants say they’re facing hurdles getting their applications through — let alone approved — and advocates stuck evaluating the filings are hesitant to speak out.

“You see people saying, ‘I’m not going to come again, I’m not going to apply again because nothing is going to come of it,’ and it looks like that’s what they want by making the process so complicated,” said a woman who worked at a supermarket throughout the pandemic and whose family contracted COVID-19 in March.

The New Jersey Monitor confirmed these residents applied to the excluded workers fund, but allowed them to speak anonymously so they could speak freely without fear of their application being denied or their immigration status revealed.

The woman applied for a piece of the $40 million fund within the first week applications were open. She went to a community clinic set up to help people apply, and she had documents like bank statements, pay slips, and her identification. She said the process went smoothly, taking about 10 minutes.

A week later, she received an email saying she was missing important documents, but nothing explaining what else she needed to upload. She guessed it was proof of contracting COVID-19, so she uploaded her positive test result. But by Nov. 20, her application had expired.

“You feel defrauded. Another thing that doesn’t work, another door that doesn’t open. You feel unmotivated,” said the woman, who arrived to the United States three years ago from Uruguay. “This all feels superficial, like it’s something to keep us happy, to keep us calm so we stop insisting.”

Her husband’s application was also denied, she said.

More than 6,000 applications seeking money from the fund have been filed, said Eva Loayza-McBride, spokeswoman for the state Human Services Department. Of those, 406 applications have been approved and 151 were found to be ineligible. More than 5,000 applications are waiting to be processed.

Dozens of residents shared similar stories of confusion over the application and desperation after 20 months of being excluded from all forms of direct assistance during the pandemic, including stimulus checks and unemployment benefits. New Jersey is home to roughly 475,000 undocumented immigrants.

Many have been told that they’re missing documents, but don’t know what else to upload, or that they have already uploaded the maximum amount of 20 documents and can’t edit their application. Others have had their profiles expire, with no way to fix it other than reaching out to the state. Some residents are told they are ineligible, even though they seem to meet all the requirements.

The low amount of the grants — $1,000 per person, maxing out at $2,000 per household — might dissuade residents who don’t want to carve out hours to dig through paperwork, take a bus to a clinic, and then fill out an application they fear won’t be accepted, said Chia-Chia Wang, an organizer with Newark-based advocacy group American Friends Service Committee.

“I think it makes a difference, but this isn’t a life-changing amount of money. $1,000 is barely enough to pay for rent, and if you owe any medical services, it might not cover it all. Then for food, it’s only good for two to three months,” Wang said. “People just say, I don’t want to go through the process, the amount is not so much, and the process is time-consuming.”

Several advocacy groups are hesitant to speak with the media about the application process because they’re overseeing applications, and received $900,000 from the state for outreach and to hire people to evaluate documents. Six immigrant activist organizations were selected to review the applications, determine applicants’ eligibility, and approve applications, DHS said. It’s unclear if any other money was set aside for outreach.

When the fund was announced, advocates expressed worry about the small pot of money, saying it would help only 30,000 New Jerseyans. Now, they’re concerned over the low number of applicants.

But because many of these advocates are tied up helping people file for the funds, they don’t have time to go into communities to advertise it. Most of the organizations that received extra funds from DHS are based in North Jersey.

“It takes time for people to trust the system, for them to feel that they can and need to apply. We haven’t gotten that sense from the community,” Wang said. “The excitement is on our side and we have tried, but we haven’t seen a similar response from the community.”

Waiting in limbo

New Jersey Monitor spoke to a couple who said it took an entire day to collect all the documents they needed to apply for the fund, then they headed to a community clinic to fill out the application, which took over 30 minutes.

The wife and husband, who asked not to be identified because they feared their application would be denied, said they had been eagerly awaiting the applications to open up.

But their applications were denied, according to an email sent by the DHS. The email, reviewed by the New Jersey Monitor, does not explain why they were found ineligible, and it says not to reapply or the application will be automatically blocked.

The man believes the cause is his lack of proof he caught COVID-19 in March 2020. He thinks he caught it from a coworker while carpooling to their job at a factory, but because there were no robust testing protocols at the time, he doesn’t have a positive test result. His symptoms included cough, fever, fatigue, and loss of smell and taste. He missed one week of work.

That one week put them behind on rent and bills, and the couple had to use their savings to avoid arrearages. The factory where he works closed for Thanksgiving week, which is a major loss of income. With inflation and rising costs for heating, he might have to get a second job, he said.

“We’re pretty frustrated,” he said. “It would help us a lot, and thats why we’re trying to do this. They said it would be open for us, and that there would be some relief coming our way, but we haven’t gotten that result yet.”

You feel defrauded. Another thing that doesn't work, another door that doesn't open. You feel unmotivated. This all feels superficial, like it's something to keep us happy, to keep us calm so we stop insisting.

– An undocumented woman who worked in N.J. supermarkets during the pandemic

Another couple said they were rejected because the wife and the couple’s children received stimulus benefits. According to the DHS eligibility, people can apply to the fund if other people in their household received financial aid but they did not.

It seems like there are different requirements for different applicants, depending on what group is involved, one volunteer said. Because different organizations are reviewing applications and there is no centralized place to ask questions, volunteers are often puzzled on what steps to take to fix applications.

“Everything is automatic. There’s no one to reach and ask for help,” she said.

More funds in the future?

Since Gov. Phil Murphy announced the Excluded New Jerseyans Fund in May, advocates have said $40 million wouldn’t be enough for the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers who fell deep into debt during the pandemic and were ineligible for other forms of federal and state aid.

The governor, who recently won re-election with the backing of immigrant advocacy groups, has hinted at a second round of funds. But with the demand for the first round so low, some activists worry it won’t justify more money.

Some advocates fault the state for not doing enough outreach, or creating an easy enough process for immigrants looking to claim $1,000.

“Some people are not tech-savvy. They don’t do online banking or buy groceries online,” said Wang. “We also serve a large number of people who were recently in immigration detention, so they need more help.”

They point to New York, which allocated a $2.1 billion pool of money, with some workers eligible for up to $15,600. While that program also had its share of issues, New York waged a campaign against misinformation, quickly distributed funds to residents, and were able to provide a much more substantial amount of money to individual applicants before the fund was depleted.

With six organizations in charge of processing and evaluating thousands of documents in New Jersey, Wang is concerned about the impending Dec. 31 deadline for applicants to claim money from the fund. Wang expects interest to increase now that Thanksgiving is over, which she said is great for the people who need the funds but stresses the system even more.

“We’re learning from it now, but if the purpose of the fund is to be distributed to needy families and individuals as soon as possible, it should be a different, easy, and straightforward application,” she said. “We can’t say it’s a failure because we haven’t reached the finish line, but they need to allow more time and allocate more funding. It’s just too little.”


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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.