Undocumented immigrants and activists gather in Trenton Dec. 9, 2021, to call attention to the issues they’re having with the Excluded New Jerseyans Fund. (Sophie Nieto-Muñoz | New Jersey Monitor)
Immigrant advocates expressed anger Wednesday over the state reallocating the majority of a $40 million fund for residents excluded from COVID-era relief, which advocates secured after 18 months of protests and a 24-day hunger strike.
“We didn’t think it was real. We didn’t think it could be possible. Now, instead of fighting for more money like in New York, we have to fight for something they took away from us,” said Jorge Torres, an organizer with National Day Laborers Organizing Network.
About $34 million — 85% of the fund — was reallocated from the Excluded New Jerseyans Fund due to a deadline for using federal CARES Act money by Dec. 31, 2021, the governor’s office said Wednesday. The news was first reported by Gothamist.
Immigrant organizations argue the program as created included too many hurdles — a cumbersome pile of paperwork, technological problems with the application — and not enough outreach to the people who would take advantage of it.
The Department of Human Services, which oversaw the program, maintains it followed “specific federal parameters” placed on its use of the funds.
To encourage applications through the end of January, the department last month added another $10 million to the fund using cash from the 2021 American Rescue Plan, which has a more flexible deadline.
Alyana Alfaro, a spokeswoman for Gov. Phil Murphy, said the governor remains “committed to providing assistance to those who need it and encourages eligible applicants to apply to the Excluded New Jerseyans Fund this month.”
Murphy, a Democrat who began his second term Tuesday, announced the creation of the fund in May, after 30 immigrants led a hunger strike to protest the state’s lack of action to help undocumented immigrants and other residents who were ineligible for federal and state COVID-19 relief, like stimulus checks and unemployment benefits. Nearly half a million undocumented immigrants live in New Jersey.
The one-time payments were initially set at $1,000, and applications launched in late October. In December, officials doubled the cash awards to $2,000 per person, with a maximum of $4,000 per household.
The state’s move to redirect some of the fund came as immigrant advocates were arguing for a dramatic increase in the pot of money. On Tuesday, twenty local organizations, including the New Jersey chapter of the ACLU, Make the Road New Jersey, and Latino Action Network, sent a letter to Murphy urging the recently re-elected governor to increase outreach efforts and allocate $989 million to the fund.
Roughly 11,800 people applied for money from the fund in two months, a Department of Human Services spokeswoman said. Of those, 2,700 were approved and 531 were denied. Another 7,000 are pending review, and 1,500 are inactive, which means the applicant did not provide all the required information or withdrew their application.
One of those pending applications belongs to Norma Morales, a domestic worker living in Lakewood and an organizer with Cosecha Movement. She applied in November and said she was told she needs more documents but hasn’t been told what she’s missing.
She said the application requested documents she doesn’t have, like proof of a positive COVID test. She fell ill in March 2020 and December 2021, when at-home COVID-19 tests were difficult to find. She said she’s heard similar stories from her colleagues and neighbors who are also having trouble providing these documents.
“The state is playing with us. They give us the illusion that they’re going to give us a fund after the fight we put up. And all the people who really need that money don’t have access to the fund, or the support,” she said.
The Department of Human Services said it accepts several ways for residents to show they’ve been impacted by Covid, including tax returns or paystubs showing reduced hours, bank statements demonstrating loss of income, unpaid medical bills, or proof of rental arrears since March 2020. People should apply to the fund even if they don’t have these documents, a spokeswoman said.
Activists concede demand for the program — set up to support up to 30,000 families — was significantly less than expected. They blame lack of engagement by the state.
“You have a handful of people who are doing all the outreach in the state. We have a huge and diverse number of communities that need multiple layers of outreach and help,” said Amy Torres, executive director of the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice.
The state defends its handling of the fund. Six nonprofits were tasked with outreach and processing applications, and received a total of $900,000 to do so, according to state documents. DHS held webinars, translated documents into 12 languages, posted on social media regularly about the fund, worked with community providers, and promoted the fund through media releases and interview, said Johanna Calle, director of the Office of New Americans.
“Advocates for this program were integral to the design and administration of the program and their implementation recommendations were considered from the very beginning,” Calle said in a statement.
Activists note New York and Washington, D.C., doled out billions of dollars in assistance to undocumented residents without the same troubles.
“The community isn’t going to remember the few applicants who were able to secure a small amount of relief aid. They’re going to remember the perception that government will blame you even when it’s out of your control,” Torres said.
Applications remain open on the DHS website through Jan. 31.
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