Crowds race to apply for immigrant worker fund before deadline

8,000 people applied in final three days, state officials said

By: - March 1, 2022 7:14 am

People stand on line on South Warren Street in Trenton waiting to apply for the Excluded New Jerseyans Fund on Feb. 28, 2022. (Sophie Nieto Muñoz | New Jersey Monitor)

With hours left before applications for the Excluded New Jerseyans Fund closed, dozens of people lined a sidewalk on South Warren Street in Trenton, documents in hand.

One by one, they made their way to a community organizer who helped them fill out an application for their last chance at some of the millions set aside for residents who were otherwise ineligible for pandemic-related stimulus.

Shenny Marquilla said she first learned about the fund Friday through a friend. Honduran native Juan de la Cruz Orralla doesn’t have a required identification card, but wanted to submit an application before Monday’s deadline. Marisol Avila applied in November and has yet to receive any money, but showed up to help others apply.

Avila, speaking in Spanish, said Monday’s turnout should send a message to Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration.

“Maybe if they see it’s not 10 people that need help, but hundreds and thousands, maybe they will see what we need,” she said, standing in a conference room amid dozens of applicants. “Maybe nothing will happen, but at least we know we did everything possible.” 

Monday marked the last day people could apply to the fund, which launched in late October with $40 million. After a bumpy rollout that found community organizers and applicants confused and angered by the application process, the Murphy administration doubled the amount applicants receive, streamlined the process, and added more money to the fund to meet the demand.

As of 5 p.m. Monday, the Department of Human Services had received more than 35,000 applications, a spokesman said. Of those, about 4,200 were approved, 300 were denied, and the remaining 30,000 are under review. 

About 8,000 of those were submitted in the last three days, DHS said.

The fund was originally expected to help 20,000 families. Approved applicants receive $2,000.

Community organizers and activists help more than 50 people apply for the Excluded New Jerseyans Fund at a clinic in Trenton on Feb. 28, 2022. (Sophie Nieto-Muñoz | New Jersey Monitor)

Carlos Castañeda, an organizer with Movimiento Cosecha helping people fill out applications in Trenton Monday, gestured at the room full of people filling out forms.

“We’re left wondering how many people are missing — how many people weren’t reached out to, how many people are scared of applying, how many people don’t know this fund even exists,” Castañeda said. “Look at all the people who would’ve missed it today.” 

Community activists see the soaring demand in the last few days as a sign of the widespread need, especially after what they describe as a botched launch that may have scared away some applicants. They’re hoping lawmakers also see the need and expand the fund. 

The state’s Legislative Latino Caucus has asked Murphy to add $10 million to the fund on a rolling basis, or monthly. That’s the maximum amount he can allocate without approval from a joint legislative budget committee.

Murphy hasn’t commented on whether more money will be added. Community activists point to Murphy adding more money to the fund last week as a sign he can replenish the fund if he wants to.

Orrellana, the Honduran immigrant, is a painter and roofer who makes about $400 weekly, in cash. His hands, stained with white paint, held a tattered manila folder that carried his Honduran birth certificate and a utility bill belonging to his landlord. He learned about the fund Sunday night from his sister, who had just heard about it from a friend. 

“Word of mouth,” he said, sitting across from Castañera. Orrellana had no identification, doesn’t know how to access email from his phone, and has no bank account. 

It’s a common issue, Castañera said, helping people who have few or no documents, can’t read, or aren’t used to filling out forms online because they don’t have internet access at home. He showed Orrellana where to find the documents he needs to complete his application, and urged him to get a letter from his landlord or employer. The two exchanged numbers, promising to talk in a week before another clinic focused on helping people who did not complete their applications.

Castañera criticized the Murphy administration, saying it had not done enough to connect with immigrants.

“There’s no direct channel to get these questions answered,” said Castañera. “The community has no one to ask. People don’t know what’s going on with their application. There’s an email you can send questions to but how many people are going to do that when they don’t use internet?”

Other organizers worry not enough outreach was done outside of the Spanish-speaking community. (State officials published information for the fund in 12 languages.) The five community organizations tasked with hosting educational sessions were largely focused on people living in North Jersey, excluding large pockets of migrants in the Bridgeton and Atlantic City areas.

Molvina applied to the fund on Nov. 11 and said she hasn’t gotten the money yet. She needs it badly to help with medical bills from when she was hospitalized with COVID, and for her gas and light bills that are more than a year overdue. A pandemic-related utility shutoff grace period ends on March 15.

“I don’t want to sit around waiting. I thought I’d help people apply, because it’s still fighting for what’s right and what we need,” said Molvina, a Make the Road New Jersey volunteer and mom of four boys who has been living in New Jersey for nearly 20 years. “I think of all the kids who need help.”

Immigrant activists continue to call on Murphy and the state Legislature to allocate $1 billion to the fund to help the state’s half-million undocumented immigrants. Some are optimistic the Legislature will appropriate some money during the upcoming budget season, but with a strengthened Republican minority after last year’s legislative elections, they recognize such a plan would face stronger opposition than it has in the past.

“Our job is to fight. The Legislature’s job is to listen to us and pass the bills we’re asking about,” Castañera said. “Then the governor signs it. They can say they want to do it, but their actions speak louder than their words.”

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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.

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