New Jersey is trying to make it easier for immigrant workers excluded from other forms of COVID-related aid to apply for the $40 million fund created by Gov. Phil Murphy, after facing blowback from immigrant advocate groups who said the process was prohibitively cumbersome.

"There are many people waiting for this fund, waiting to pay rent and bills and this process is very frustrating," Caritina Hernandez, an organizer with Movimiento Cosecha NJ, said in Spanish during a press conference Monday.

Earlier this month, WNYC/Gothamist reported Murphy's office diverted most of the fund’s dollars to cover state payroll and other expenses because not enough people applied before the money had to be used by the federal deadline. The state initially argued the funds were dormant due to a lack of demand. But last week, Murphy said he would replenish the fund with dollars from another bucket of federal subsidies and extend the application window through the end of February.

The Department of Human Services, which is overseeing the program, said it would no longer require applicants to prove they were affected by COVID-19 after the federal government relaxed its rules for state spending. Some immigrants don't have bank accounts which makes it hard to prove they lost income. Others couldn't secure a letter from their employer verifying they had to quarantine or lost work.

"We are working to update the application and website to remove demonstrating COVID-19 impact from the eligibility criteria and required documents," DHS spokesman Eva Loayza-McBride said in an email.

Other requirements remain the same. To qualify, residents must earn $55,000 a year or less and show they were excluded from federal stimulus payments and unemployment.

There is a disconnection in this process from the top to the bottom.
Cosecha organizer Carlos Castañeda

Carlos Castañeda, another organizer with Cosecha, said the state needs to better communicate the process to the community or else the program will fail again.

"If the community members that are ones needing access to this fund don't know that they can now go ahead and apply because of one less hurdle in their way, it's going to be the same," he said. “There is a disconnection in this process from the top to the bottom.”

Immigrant groups are also calling on the state to hire more evaluators to sort through the applications. Evaluators said while applications that meet all requirements can take 30 minutes to an hour to approve, others that are missing documents can take several days. Some advocates said applicants have waited over a month to hear back.

DHS is currently working with five nonprofits to look through applications but it's unclear if they will contract with additional organizations. Loayza-McBride said the department also hired temporary state staff to increase capacity.

To date, more than 13,000 people have applied to the Excluded New Jerseyans Fund. About 3,100 have been approved and received $7.5 million in benefits; 500 were denied.

With individual benefits capped at $2,000 and $4,000 per home, the fund is expected to help about 20,000 people — a fraction of the estimated 500,000 undocumented immigrants in New Jersey.

Advocates said the state needs to do more work to educate residents about the fund and get them to apply by the end of February.

“This deadline for one month is their responsibility to make it happen, it’s not us,” said Jorge Torres of the National Day Laborers Organizing Network.

State officials said they will work with their nonprofit partners to conduct more community events and promote the program on social media.

Advocates on Monday also called on Murphy and the state Legislature to increase the fund to $1 billion. But Murphy has limited powers in how he can allocate federal funds from the American Rescue Plan. Anything greater than $10 million must be approved by the Joint Budget Oversight Committee.

Though $34 million of the fund was re-allocated to other expenses last year, Murphy will replenish the program with $24 million from the federal stimulus package in several tranches. An additional $10 million was previously allocated last month, bringing the total amount of benefits to $40 million as initially promised.