NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—With no sign of COVID-19 relief funds reaching New Jersey’s undocumented, tax-paying workers for over a year since the pandemic began last March, a coalition of Latino organizations are stepping up pressure on the state government to provide aid.
Undocumented taxpayers are yet to receive a dime in financial relief from the state, despite a surplus in the state budget and an influx of federal relief funds. New Jersey’s undocumented population is the fourth largest in the nation and contributes over $600 million in state and local taxes.
This new campaign to help undocumented workers was initiated after Governor Phil Murphy left aid for undocumented taxpayers out of his latest budget proposal—his second since the coronavirus pandemic began.
On St. Patrick’s Day, a group of immigrants and their advocates, holding cutouts of shamrocks, gathered in Elizabeth and called on the state’s leading lawmakers—Murphy, Senate President Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin—to recognize the Irish immigrant roots that they share with the undocumented community.
Immigration advocates suspect Murphy and legislative leaders are dragging their feet because they are up for re-election in November. Similar efforts to secure aid through the legislature and through the Governor’s Office failed last year.
Most New Jersey residents who file taxes using social security numbers have benefitted from the three COVID-relief stimulus packages released by the federal government, starting with the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act that took effect in March last year.
Undocumented taxpayers, however, file taxes using a number called an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN). The CARES Act specifically excluded US citizens who are married to ITIN payers, but this was corrected in the two relief packages that followed.
On March 22, the advocacy group Make the Road New Jersey launched a voter engagement drive to target 100,000 registered Latino voters and voters of color over the next month to drive support for their cause—state legislation that would expand aid to undocumented immigrant taxpayers.
“For an entire year, [undocumented] Latinx immigrants and our families have been left behind from nearly every form of aid. While other states have stepped up to provide income replacement and relief to immigrant families, New Jersey has left us out in the cold. We are the essential workers that allowed this state to shelter in place,” said Deya Aldena, lead organizer of Make the Road New Jersey, in a statement.
Sara Cullinane of Make the Road New Jersey said that the campaign is in response to the Governor excluding this aid from his latest budget and the legislature’s leadership not bringing a similar bill to vote last year, despite widespread support in both houses. That bill, S2480, would have appropriated $35 million to make one-time payments to around 35,000 undocumented taxpayers.
“The administration has done a lot of very pro-immigrant initiatives, but when it’s a life or death situation like COVID, immigrants are left behind, and that it’s in an election year makes you wonder why that is,” said Cullinane.
The Murphy administration has implemented a variety of immigrant friendly policies, including allocating money to provide immigration detainees with legal services. Murphy also signed into law a bill legalizing access to driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, though his administration has delayed implementing the law until May of this year, citing COVID-related delays.
Jenny Llugcha, an undocumented Ecuadorian immigrant from Perth Amboy, lost her job when the clothing factory where she was a line-worker, closed at the start of the pandemic. Around the same time, her 21 year-old daughter lost her job at an after-school program, leaving the family with no income other than child-support payments from her ex-husband, who is a US citizen.
The family moved out of their home and depended on the community for support until they could save enough money to make a deposit on a new apartment. Llugcha has not qualified for any federal or state COVID relief so far, though she has paid taxes at every factory job she’s held since ever since she entered the United States five years ago with her children.
“It’s not just harmful to us,” she said, “it’s hurtful that we have not received a single dollar in aid.”
Advocates were frustrated and puzzled when they learned just days before the official budget announcement on February 23, that undocumented worker aid would not make it into the Governor’s proposal.
Despite the Murphy administration’s immigrant-friendly stance, advocates are questioning if this being an election year has to do with why he will not commit to providing relief. In addition to allocating aid in the budget, the Governor could also approve funds unilaterally through an executive order that does not have to be approved by the Legislature.
“I think it’s a political move from his people. They don’t want to take the risk of appearing pro-undocumented immigrant by providing direct assistance,” said Dr. Patricia Campos-Medina, president of LUPE PAC, an organization that promotes Latina representation in NJ politics and is participating in the voter engagement initiative.
Alyana Alfaro Post, press secretary for the governor, did not address the reason for excluding aid for undocumented communities from the budget, responding with this emailed statement: “Governor Murphy believes that immigrants are a critical part of the fabric of New Jersey and he continues to support our immigrant communities.”
Murphy has not publicly committed to providing aid to undocumented taxpayers since the start of the pandemic.
Cullinane said her organization is urging sponsors of last year’s failed legislation—including Senators Teresa Ruiz, Joseph Cryan and Assemblywoman Annette Quijano, to propose a new bill that would provide $600 weekly to all unemployed workers and stimulus-like payments to taxpaying families, if excluded from federal and state relief.
“We are encouraging a new bill that’s broader. The first legislation would have only covered a quarter of all [undocumented] people for a small amount of money, and now we’re a year into the pandemic. It was not nearly enough in May, but it’s definitely not enough now,” said Cullinane.
Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker, who represents South Brunswick and parts of Somerset County and Mercer County, was one of the sponsors of last year’s bill and has been a vocal supporter of the relief it would have granted.
“This is not a handout,” he said in an interview. “There’s a social contract here that is the basis of our communities. We’re talking about taxpayers who are putting money into the system. Sometimes it’s for roads and bridges and schools, but in this case, it’s money for basic survival, for rent and food.”
Undocumented workers are widely deemed as essential workers because of their employment in farm-work, restaurants, warehouses, delivery and cleaning.
“There are people who are in far worse situations than our family. We’re fortunate we had child-support payments during this time,” said Llugcha, who came to the United States to re-unite with her husband. They later separated.
She is required to check in twice a week from her apartment with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), using an app that tracks her geo-location. The arrangement makes it nearly impossible for Llugcha to find full-time work outside her home.
She also learned that she owes the federal Internal Revenue Service (IRS) $500 in taxes this year, though she hardly worked during the pandemic. She told New Brunswick Today that her tax adviser said that the drop in her income last year, compared to her earnings in previous years likely worked against her.
“I have to now find a way to pay the IRS what I owe,” she said. “I hope, that by telling my story—a story that is not unique; it is the story of many women who come to this country—I can convince the government to do the right thing.”