There are days Yolanda Calderon peaks into the empty fridge inside her home in Elizabeth, New Jersey and hopes whether a neighbor will drop off some bread or milk that day or wonders how long the line will be at the nearby church giving out free groceries. 

“Sometimes I only have enough food for my kids, there’s not much left for me,” Calderon, a 50 year-old single mother of two, told WNYC/Gothamist. “It’s embarrassing.”

Now Calderon—who lost her job cleaning homes last year—has weaponized the hunger she’s felt most of the year: She’s one of 35 people on the 10th day of a hunger strike to demand Governor Phil Murphy create a relief fund for undocumented workers who have largely been shut out of unemployment benefits and other pockets of aid.

“I think we are asking for what is just,” Calderon said. “I try not to cry too much but sometimes I sit in the bathroom and I cry and I ask myself, ‘When is this going to end?’” 

Make the Road New Jersey, the immigrant-advocacy group leading efforts to secure aid for undocumented workers, has staged dozens of rallies and protests all year, hoping to pressure state lawmakers and Murphy to take action. And last week as Trenton lawmakers debated a budget proposed by Murphy—a Democrat who has largely embraced the more progressive wing of the party— that doesn’t include any funding for undocumented workers, immigrant advocates launched a fast.  

“States that are further to the right than New Jersey have done this so it’s definitely time for our state to act,” said Sara Cullinane, executive director of Make the Road New Jersey. “They are standing up to demand that our state fill in where our federal government has left half a million people behind.”

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Other states like New Mexico, Maryland and California have expanded federal stimulus payments to the undocumented population. And earlier this month, workers in New York launched a 23-day hunger strike until lawmakers there agreed to include $2.1 billion in direct cash payments for immigrants excluded from federal stimulus checks and unemployment benefits. It will be the largest such program in the country in a state where undocumented workers make up about 4.9% of the workforce.

In New Jersey, however, where the undocumented comprise 6.5% of the labor force, a bill introduced by state Senator Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex to direct stipends to some workers, has languished without a vote since last May. 

The Murphy administration has committed to providing some type of relief and earlier this week floated the idea of directing around $40 million of leftover federal stimulus money to help undocumented workers—a similar amount to the one proposed by Ruiz about a year ago. 

But advocates called Murphy’s proposal too little, too late.  

“New Jersey has had over a year to think about this, over a year to figure this out and to be scrambling at the last minute to push pennies together for excluded workers is not going to cut it,” said Amy Torres, executive director of the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice. 

With about 416,000 undocumented immigrants in the state, she said the $40 million would amount to less than $100 per person—enough to pay a phone bill. 

But pressure is mounting, and on Friday, 12 labor unions sent a letter to Murphy and legislative leaders to urge support for a recovery fund. The fund would direct $600 weekly payments to undocumented workers who lost income and $2,000 on-time payments to families left out of the federal stimulus is mounting. The Hispanic Chamber of Commerce is also backing the hunger strikers. 

Ben Dworkin, director of the Rowan Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship, said a legislative solution will be difficult, especially during an election year, when all 120 seats in the state Assembly and Senate are up for re-election.

“The governor running statewide—and, at this point seemingly, running ahead of his Republican challenger—might be able to get through this kind of policy initiative and still be perfectly fine. Legislators in smaller districts of 220,000 people or so do not necessarily have the same political leeway,” Dworkin said. 

Patricia Campos-Media, a progressive activist, said helping undocumented immigrants who have kept the economy going throughout the pandemic is not only important to immigrant advocates or Latinos, it’s become a progressive issue—something Democratic lawmakers in the state are failing to see.

Female protesters wearing masks hold a sign that says "372 Days Without Relief" and a plate that says "Recovery 4 all"

Cullinane stands with a bullhorn in front of her mask with other protesters around her

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Cullinane stands with a bullhorn in front of her mask with other protesters around her
Karen Yi/WNYC

“To me it’s actually a lack of political courage by this legislature and this governor,” she said. “If you are saying that you are a progressive governor that cares about the most vulnerable and in making this state fairer, then you cannot leave a whole population of workers who are dying with no aid.”

WNYC/Gothamist found nearly half the COVID-19 related deaths among 18-49 year olds in New Jersey were Hispanic men, even though they make up just 12% of the working-age population. 

“Earning fathers have died, we’re going backwards in our community in many ways,” Campos-Medina said. “For him not to see it that way, people are calling him out on it.”

It’s not clear who would be eligible for relief under the administration’s proposal and if officials would limit efforts to undocumented workers who use an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number to pay state and federal income taxes. 

Advocates, however, say, limiting aid only to ITIN filers would exclude a large portion of undocumented immigrants and likely the most marginalized, who still pay other taxes like local property taxes and sales tax. 

Like Rosa Elba, 52, who said she lost work for four months during the pandemic. She worked three jobs, at a restaurant and cleaning offices and homes. She’s back at work but earning $200 less a week and that means she has to cut corners to make sure she and her son have enough to eat and pay their bills.

“They don’t take us into account. We are hard working. We pay our taxes, I have 22 years of living here,” said Elba.