Immigrants in New Jersey voiced outrage after WNYC/Gothamist reported the state re-allocated most of the $40 million dollar fund created to help undocumented workers who didn’t initially qualify for state or federal COVID relief.
“I’m angry that the state played with us. They gave us hope with this fund,” Norma Morales, a domestic worker in Lakewood said in Spanish during a press conference hosted by various immigrant groups on Wednesday. “Many of us who actually need that fund haven’t been able to access it.”
Gov. Phil Murphy set aside the leftover coronavirus relief funds last year after mounting pressure from immigrant advocates and a refusal by state lawmakers to take action. New Jersey had until December 31st to distribute $40 million in federal CARES Act funding before it expired.
But with only $6 million in aid distributed by last year’s deadline, Murphy’s office re-allocated the rest of the money — $34 million — to other eligible expenses like payroll and departmental costs, officials confirmed.
The state said demand for the program, among roughly 500,000 undocumented immigrants in New Jersey, wasn’t there. Only 11,000 people applied and 2,600 have been approved to receive $2,000 checks. More than 6,000 applications are awaiting review.
But immigrant groups said the process was mired in bureaucratic complications, discouraging eligible applicants from coming forward.
Johanna Calle, director of the Department of Human Services’ Office of New Americans that is directly overseeing the program, said those who have already been approved for funds will still receive benefits. Another $10 million was also added from a different pot of federal money that extends the program through the end of January.
Immigrant groups said the $40 million was never enough to meet the need but people didn’t apply because the process was overly cumbersome. Others didn’t know the program existed. They said the state needed to dedicate more resources to reach people who were eligible and then help them through the process.
But Calle said local advocates were responsible for helping to administer the program. DHS hired six nonprofits for $900,000 to review applications and provide outreach and support.
“Every organization that received an award provided budgets outlining resources needed to fulfill these responsibilities, including outreach and support of applicants,” Calle said in a statement, adding that they met with some groups daily or weekly.
“Advocates for this program were integral to the design and administration of the program and their implementation recommendations were considered from the very beginning,” she said.
A review of the program’s contracts and award letters provided by DHS doesn’t specify what outreach efforts the groups were responsible for. The state’s request for proposals, however, did solicit nonprofits who would be responsible for community outreach.
But immigrant advocates said relying on six groups to do outreach across the entire state was insufficient.
“There was a heavy emphasis on case management and application review and very little time designated for outreach or reimbursement for outreach,” said Amy Torres, executive director of the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice, which represents a network of member organizations.
“Knowing that the federal funds that were part of this program were set to expire in December, why didn’t the state make decisions to fund additional providers and deepen their outreach across the state?”
Other states like California, Maryland and New York have also distributed funds to workers excluded from other forms of relief. New York lawmakers passed a $2.1 billion program. Labor officials there said they awarded $15 million to 75 organizations to do outreach and help workers apply. The department also spent another $460,000 on TV and radio ads, and subway and bus campaigns, a spokesperson said.
In New Jersey, state officials didn’t pay for ads but did share flyers with local officials, posted on social media and hosted a webinar for more than 200 providers to educate them about the fund.
During Wednesday’s press conference, Felix Gallardo, who applied to the fund three months ago, said she’s still waiting to hear back.
“There’s so many requirements, it’s almost like they were trying not to give us the money,” she said in Spanish. Gallardo lost income when she got sick with COVID. She worked at a food production company where she said workers reused aprons from prior shifts. She said she hopes to use the money to pay her utility bills and increase her internet speed so her son can do online schooling.
Morales, the domestic worker, who is also still waiting for her application to be approved, said the documentation required was impossible, such as proving she was affected by COVID.
“I didn’t go to a hospital, I don’t have a paper that says I had COVID,” she said. “I don’t have a way to prove I had COVID.”
The state said Thursday that applicants can prove COVID impacts in other ways, such as bank statements showing a reduced income or a notice from an employer requiring quarantine or a reduction in hours.
New Jersey officials said using federal funds means they need to require more documents to prove the pandemic’s impact on a recipient. The window to apply remains open through January 31st and applications are available online.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify the ways in which applicants can demonstrate the impact of COVID.