NJ reallocates $34 million of Excluded NJ Fund money, leaving immigrants stunned

·7 min read
With his wife Tammy holding the family bible, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy takes his oath for a second term from NJ Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner in Patriots Theatre at the Trenton War Memorial Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022.

Immigrant workers and their advocates are angry that most of the funds intended to assist New Jersey's undocumented population and others excluded from COVID-related aid will be reallocated to pay for state expenses instead.

The Murphy administration has shifted $34 million of the $50 million federally-funded Excluded New Jerseyans Fund toward expenses, likely to payroll and various department costs incurred due to COVID to avert a "use it or lose it" situation.

The move has left the state's immigrant community stunned.

“It’s just a horrible messaging for a community that is so vulnerable, and has been left behind, and went on hunger strikes, and has been fighting a very hard campaign for their dignity,” said Sheila Reynertson, a senior policy analyst at New Jersey Policy Perspective, a research and advocacy group.

The diverted money came from Coronavirus Relief Funds and would have expired if unused by Dec. 31, 2021, a deadline set by the federal government. State officials had initially set aside $40 million for the fund with that deadline. In mid-December, the state added $10 million to the fund and extended the deadline to Jan. 31.

Based on the total applications received, the state calculated the demand for the fund was $17 million. But immigrant advocates said the difficult and confusing process to apply for the funds discouraged many, who would have qualified for the assistance, from filing an application. Many were excluded due to incomplete applications.

A coalition of undocumented immigrant workers and their supporters sent a letter to Gov. Phil Murphy expressing their disappointment and concern over the state's reallocation. The letter asked for the total amount of funding to be increased to $1 billion and called on Murphy to recognize other states that acted earlier and operated their funds more efficiently. New York state, the letter said, successfully disbursed $2.1 billion in an excluded worker fund to 130,000 applicants in just two months, and California offered a similar fund in May 2020.

For months, advocates and workers have criticized the application process and its requirements, which they said complicated what should have been a much easier process for an already vulnerable community consisting of restaurant workers, day laborers, warehouse workers, and domestic workers, many of who also pay taxes but were excluded from federal aid.

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“I have lived in this country for 25 years, working day and night, without seeing my loved ones and paying taxes,” said Passaic resident Felix Gallardo. At the start of COVID, she worked for a food production company and had only a face mask and a hairnet for protection. The workers shared aprons and were brought to and from work in a van provided by the agency that hired them. The van carried 17 people at a time. “We began to fall sick,” Gallardo said. She lost a friend in that group to COVID, and then caught it herself, long before vaccines were available.

The state's action to reallocate the funds is not illegal, but the news has been a public relations disaster for the Murphy administration.

Reynertson said the state had other funds to cover expenses. She said $3.6 billion is available in flexible federal dollars allocated to the state from Fiscal Recovery Funds that could have been used to replenish the diverted money.

"My calculation says that $3.625 billion, essentially two-thirds of the $6.24 billion that we received as a state of those Fiscal Recovery Funds that were allocated to all states as flexible dollars, within a range of things they could spend it on – and cash assistance is one of them -- have not been allocated yet," Reynertson said.

The governor’s office has limited discretion on how those billions of dollars are spent, because of an agreement between the office and the state Legislature. Any spending by the executive beyond $10 million requires approval from the Joint Budget Oversight Committee.

Murphy was unable to win support from the Legislature for a state fund for undocumented and excluded workers in 2020, and a bill proposed by Sen. Teresa Ruiz for the same purpose did not win support.

Gallardo said she needed the relief funds, which are $2,000 for individuals and a maximum of $4,000 per household, to pay for her electric bill so her son could do his homework, in addition to other expenses.

“It's been three months since I applied and the last notification I got from the fund is that my application is under review.” Gallardo said. It's "unjust and inhumane that the government sees our productive value only when we are working, and not when we need help.”

Low-income communities of color were disproportionately hit by the pandemic, and Latino men have died in far larger numbers in New Jersey than men in other racial groups from COVID-19, according to an analysis conducted by WNYC-Gothamist. Experts have tied these deaths to lack of access to health insurance and exposure to the virus from performing essential, daily wage work.

The perception within the immigrant community is the state didn't take the community seriously and because of the difficulty in the process, the program was set up to fail from the start, said Amy Torres, executive director of the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice.

"People feel like they have lost their trust in the state’s ability to really listen to the community and provide responsive programs,” Torres said.

Advocate Rita Dentino from Casa Freehold, a labor advocacy and immigrant rights group, said outreach and assistance with the application process was not funded well enough, even though the state hired six community organizations for the job.

“The assistance that we have provided to community members for applying to the fund has been difficult because once applications were submitted, all communication has gone to the applicant only — and many of them have gotten only formulaic text messages telling them that they need more documents, but never telling them WHAT additional documentation was needed,” said Dentino.

The Office of New Americans, which administers the funds, responded by saying that it took recommendations from advocates and organizers when designing the program, and has conducted weekly outreach to applicants whose applications have expired or are missing information through emails and phone calls.

The Office of New Americans also said that anyone who has applied to the Excluded New Jerseyans Fund and been approved will receive their benefits.

None of this explains the clear disconnect between the state and the organizations that spoke out Wednesday, many of which responded to RFPs and were hired by the state to assist in processing applications and in following up with applicants.

The Office of New Americans said Wednesday that of the 11,800 applications received, 2,700 have been approved and 531 denied. Around 1,500 applications are inactive, meaning the applicant did not respond to a request for information or withdrew their application.

Advocates pointed out when the fund was first announced that it would only serve 10% of the state's 440,000 undocumented immigrants.

Reynertson also said that the $3.6 billion in unallocated federal funds could be allocated in several ways to groups of people who need the assistance. These include hazard pay to essential workers who put their lives at risk during the pandemic and to survivors of domestic violence who were stuck in unsafe situations during the lockdown, she said.

Mary Ann Koruth covers education for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to the latest news about New Jersey's schools and how it affects your children, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: koruthm@northjersey.com

Twitter: @MaryAnnKoruth

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: NJ reallocates millions in Excluded NJ fund money, angering immigrants