NEWARK, NJ—A 150-strong crowd of mostly undocumented low-wage workers, their families and their advocates marched in Newark on May 19 to protest the amount of money allocated to a COVID-19 relief fund for “excluded” workers announced by Governor Phil Murphy.
Murphy made the announcement on May 7 that $40 million would be allocated, after more than a year of public protests, a voter engagement drive and hunger strikes by workers from across the state who were excluded from federal relief offered to citizens in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Organizations that advocate for the state’s undocumented community, however, are sorely disappointed with the amount of money in the fund.
“It’s just not enough,” said Nadia Morin, co-executive director of the National Day Laborer’s Organizing Network, a nationwide advocacy group and one of the organizers of the march.
The fund, according to a press release from the Governor’s office, will provide direct cash assistance to those who did not receive previous federal stimulus checks or unemployment insurance payments. It is open to all qualifying families who make up to $55,000 a year that can provide evidence of COVID-related economic hardship.
There are 475,000 undocumented residents in New Jersey, according to a 2019 report from the Pew Research Center. The fund will make one-time payments of up to $2,000 to qualifying workers, but would run out before the majority of the state’s excluded workers are able to get any money.
“The fund leaves out 90% of the undocumented community in New Jersey,” said Morin. “At this point workers are standing up to say this is not enough. Governor Murphy has the power to do more. The action he has taken is nowhere near enough to respect the contributions and the dignity of New Jersey’s excluded workers.”
Among the organizers of the march were undocumented worker advocacy groups New Labor and Cosecha. Both have centers in New Brunswick and other New Jersey cities. Other organizations present included the National Domestic Workers Association, Casa Freehold, Wind of the Spirit and Unidad Latina En Accion NJ.
Murphy’s office has not determined when or how the money in his new fund will be distributed, but said that his administration will launch the program in the coming weeks.
A spokesperson for the Governor’s office, Alyana Alfaro, said that the cash assistance program was created because Murphy understands that certain communities have had to bear an outsized burden during the pandemic.
Alfaro also pointed out that his administration has offered rental assistance and food insecurity programs during the pandemic without checking for documentation status.
But many advocates feel that the latest cash assistance proposal is too little, too late.
Advocate Jorge Torres said that protesters marched to the offices of US Senators Robert Menendez and Cory Booker in Newark to draw support for their cause.
The program announced by Murphy is funded using monies from the federal CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act.
Senator Menendez told New Brunswick Today that his office leaves it to the state to decide how to allocate federal monies, but that he is aware of the concerns of the undocumented community.
“We are trying to get a sense of what their numbers are to see what might be a more proportionate assistance and to recommend that to the Governor’s office,” Menendez said.
The effort by the undocumented community to secure financial relief began early last year, led by advocates at Make the Road New Jersey after relief payments included in the March 2020 CARES Act excluded even mixed-status families, where just one member is undocumented and others are US citizens.
Two rounds of federal relief followed in subsequent versions of the CARES Act, with additional payments to citizens in December 2020 and February 2021.
The December round of stimulus included mixed-status families. February’s stimulus package, “the American Rescue Plan” crafted by the administration of President Joe Biden, included American children in families where both parents are undocumented. Like the earlier relief packages, however, it left out undocumented taxpayers.
Sara Cullinane, Director of Make the Road New Jersey, said her organization plans to continue to push for additional funds from the state’s vast surplus and from the $6.4 billion in federal funds that have become available from the American Rescue Plan Act.
A state bill that would have appropriated $35 million—a slightly lesser amount than the Governor’s fund—in relief for undocumented taxpayers last year had wide support, but New Jersey’s legislative leadership did not bring it up for vote, Cullinane said in March.
Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin and State Senate President Stephen Sweeney lead the lower and upper houses of the state’s Democratic-controlled legislature. Some advocates have asked if Governor Murphy and legislative leadership are concerned about appearing pro-immigrant in the run up to their elections this November.