Murphy says N.J. will replenish fund for immigrant workers
The new funding comes after officials redirected $34M for state expenses
Gov. Phil Murphy (Danielle Richards for New Jersey Monitor)
Gov. Phil Murphy announced Thursday he will replenish the $40 million fund created for workers who were excluded from COVID-19 relief aid, a move that comes a week after the state said 85% of the fund had been redirected to state payroll expenses.
Immigrant activists celebrated news of additional funds for the state’s 460,000 undocumented immigrants — and an extended deadline for them to file for the aid — but remain critical of the administration’s handling of the matter. A four-week extension and minor changes to the application process won’t be enough to help a marginalized population that largely hasn’t received a cent in direct federal or state aid, they said.
Activists also believe immigrants are being blamed for what they believe are the administration’s failures.
“The Murphy administration and Department of Human Services, it’s their responsibility to make this fund accessible to the community. It’s not the responsibility of this community or the fault of people living in the community. If we don’t see more people applying and being approved, then my read is nothing has changed,” said Jorge Torres of the National Day Laborers Organizing Network.
Murphy announced the replenishment and month-long extension on WNYC Thursday, days before the deadline to apply for the pared-down relief fund.
The Excluded New Jerseyans Fund launched in late October, after 18 months of protests from immigrants and activists. It set aside $40 million for residents excluded from pandemic relief like stimulus checks and unemployment benefits, largely benefitting the undocumented community, formerly incarcerated residents, and the unhoused.
It was funded by federal CARES Act money, which came with strict requirements and deadlines. But CARES Act funds expired Dec. 31, forcing the state to return the money to the feds or reallocate it to other state expenses, like payroll and departmental fees.
The state in December announced a new application deadline of Jan. 31 and $10 million to “extend … the operation” of the fund.
After Murphy’s Thursday announcement, the Department of Human Services confirmed it will add up to $24 million to the fund, using money from the federal American Rescue Plan. Rules for using ARP money allow New Jersey residents with household incomes of $55,000 or less and who didn’t receive pandemic-era relief to apply “without supplying additional documentation demonstrating COVID-related impacts,” according to a DHS statement.
Applicants had reported problems with the number and type of documents they were asked to supply for the first round of aid. Many fell ill in the early days of the pandemic and do not have a positive test result to prove it. Other undocumented residents are fearful to ask their landlords or employers for a letter detailing the financial impact COVID had on their families, required of some applicants during the initial application round.
“This is going to be much easier to get the money on the street to where we need it,” Murphy said on WNYC. “These people clearly are desperate and we’re not going to recover from this thing, either virally or economically, until we all recover.”
The benefit amount will remain the same: a one-time payment of $2,000 per person, up to $4,000 per household. The department will also review previously denied or expired applications to ensure those applicants are aware of the new criteria.
The new tranche of money will primarily go to direct benefits, said Eva Loayza-McBride, spokeswoman for the DHS. About 2.5% will go to administrative costs, like outreach and application assistance.
The new deadline will be Feb. 28, and applications are available online. People are encouraged to apply even if they may not have all required documents.
It’s unclear what will happen to the money if it is not claimed by the end of February, or whether the new deadline will be extended.
“This announcement means that more individuals in need have more time to apply, and the new rules will make the application process simpler by not having to provide difficult documentation to show a specific COVID impact. The administration and our department has and continues to do everything we can to provide assistance to New Jerseyans in need,” Loayza-McBride said.
Amy Torres, director for the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice, said she sees the new deadline as one for the state to prove it wants to help immigrant communities, adding she hopes officials put more effort into reaching more people who are eligible to apply.
“This is definitely a testament to the immigrant community organizing, but I don’t think they feel heard on the amount of disrespect people feel because of how much this fund has been toyed with,” said Torres, who is not related to Jorge. “The yo-yoing of how immigrants are taken care of in this state is not really addressed with a late-night announcement.”
There was a massive outcry after the governor’s office conceded $34 million from the fund was reallocated to other state expenses due to the Dec. 31 federal deadline to use CARES Act money. Roughly $6 million had been claimed by 2,700 applicants before the money was redistributed.
Supporters of the fund say the state caused confusion by changing deadline dates and shifting the amount of money it says is in the fund.
When they state announced an additional $10 million in ARP money in December, many advocates believed that brought the fund to a total of $50 million.
State officials said Friday the fund was never intended to be more than $40 million: the $10 million was added to the fund with the expectation that it would replace money that would have to be reallocated by Dec. 31. So the new $24 million, plus the $6 million already paid out, plus the $10 million allocated in December will bring the fund back to the original $40 million, a state official said.
Jorge Torres said his head swirls when he tries to remember what money came from which fund and when it was announced. It’s the exact reason, he said, the undocumented community has little trust in the administration, and in turn, explains why some residents aren’t applying. While the fund was intended to help 30,000 families, only 11,800 people applied as of Jan. 19. Of those, 531 were denied, another 1,500 had their applications deemed incomplete, and the remaining 7,100 applications are pending review.
“When they play with our community like this, when they take out money and put it in and add more and take it out, of course there’s a fear. We’re rethinking how we’re going to push more workers to apply,” Torres said.
Activists have also long said $40 million isn’t enough to reach the nearly half-million undocumented Garden State residents, many of whom worked essential jobs during the pandemic with no hazard pay, or had to leave their jobs due to health or child care.
They’ve continued calling on the state Legislature and Murphy to add $1 billion to the fund. But Murphy has limits on how much he can allocate: Anything exceeding $10 million in American Rescue Plan dollars needs to be approved by the legislative Joint Budget Oversight Committee.
Gloria Guerrero, a resident with the Laundry Workers Center, said the fund is especially important during times of high inflation and a difficult economy.
“The return of this fund represents a bit of relief and hope for our community that is not entitled to a stimulus, to unemployment insurance, but that with their work contributes billions of dollars in taxes to maintain the economy of the state,” she said, adding that the community was “hit by a pandemic that not only sickened them, but also excluded them.”
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