A $40 million cash-assistance program for New Jersey residents who did not receive any other federal pandemic relief has reached its payout limit but will continue to accept and honor applications until its Feb 28 deadline, the state has said.
The Department of Human Services, which administers the Excluded New Jerseyans Fund, said in a statement that Gov. Phil Murphy will allocate any additional funds needed to fulfill applicationsusing federal dollars available for cash relief from the American Rescue Plan, the Biden Administration’s comprehensive relief package that was released to states in March.
Raquel Velasquez, 58, is a Spanish-speaking undocumented restaurant worker in Elizabeth. She was infected with the virus and lost her job in 2020 when the pandemic hit. She received no federal pandemic relief – a criteria for qualifying for the fund. She said she applied the second day after the fund opened in late October and received her payment on Dec. 24. She used the funds to pay off her family’s health-related expenses, to buy food and some bills she owed.
“Justice was done with all people like me. Because we work the same as everyone else, doing [manual] labor, and we contribute to the government with our taxes,” Velasquez said. “I hope that all those who need apply and can help them as well as me.”
Many undocumented workers experience labor rights violations at the hands of their employers because of their status, even though they are eligible for labor protections under federal law.
Individuals who qualify for relief receive $2,000, with a maximum of $4,000 per household.
Advocates of the mostly undocumented and low-wage workers lauded the announcement and expressed relief after the state streamlined the application process in January, three months after a rocky rollout, during which the fund’s execution was criticized as being “tricky,” complicated and set up to fail.Far fewer applications than expected rolled in by the end of the year when the fund was set to expire.
The Murphy administration then extended the deadline and added $10 million in the new year.
Community members, already discouraged by the fund’s implementation, were further outraged to learn a few weeks later that the Murphy administration had diverted $34 million in unused funds to internal expenses and payroll. The news was first reported by The Gothamist in January.
In the outcry that followed, the state rushed to replenish the fund to the original $40 million, extended the deadline yet again, and removed a key hurdle – applicants no longer have to show proof that they were impacted by the virus.
A coalition of immigrant organizations credited the state’s “reboot” of the fund’s execution to the pressure from advocates.
“It is thanks to the enormous community pressure calling to simplify the Excluded New Jerseyans application that we now arrive at this moment – in less than 3 weeks since the process was improved, the number of applications has exceeded the amount of money the state originally invested in the program,” said Amy Torres of the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice in a statement.
The Excluded New Jerseyans Fund opened in late October. By the end of December, only a fraction of it – $6 million – was disbursed, meaning that the state was able to successfully collect applications worth the remaining, largest portion – 85% – of the fund within a month.
Things are working more efficiently, advocates say, since the fund was replenished and the process revisited.
The state streamlined the application process by removing the requirement that applicants show proof they were impacted by COVID-19. This could mean proof that a family member died of virus-related causes, or that they owed rent, or that they lost jobs during the pandemic. For many undocumented workers who are paid in cash or work for temp agencies, proving job loss is difficult, say advocates. Many did not have proof of having caught the virus themselves because of lack of access to health care and insurance.
The state has also ramped up promotion of the fund, say advocates, working with mayoral offices and faith-based groups in increasing awareness about the fund.
“We have been working since Day One, working to fill applications, you can definitely see the difference [since the state made changes],” said Gloria Blanco, an advocacy coordinator at Wind of The Spirit, one of six organizations that the state hired to perform outreach and assist in filing and uploading their applications and documents.
“Before, the application was longer, it had more requirements. Now, after they [the state] decided not to ask for COVID impact, it became easier for people to meet requirements, its faster to fill out the applications. Our communities are able to acquire the majority of the documents required.”
Blanco said that the application process now also provides more flexibility. Tax returns, for example, which undocumented residents file using IRS issued numbers instead of Social Security numbers, can now be used in more ways to demonstrate the need for the aid.
Diana Mejia, director of Wind of the Spirit, said that the state asked the organizations they hired to focus more on outreach than on evaluating applications.
“We’ve been doing clinics in Plainfield, Morristown, Hackettstown, Pompton Lakes. We’ve been doing fewer evaluations and more outreach. Immigrant communities use many, many different documents, and IDs from different countries. So, evaluators need to know the culture and the different countries, especially in Latin America, that people use to identify themselves,” Mejia said.
Advocates had criticized the state for not investing enough in promoting the fund last year, which they said was why demand for the fund was low.
Blanco said the increased focus on promoting the fund was critical to counter rogue agencies offering notary services, called “notarios” in Spanish, who charge between $150 to $175 to potential applicants who do not know that the state offers free services.
“We are a grassroots organization and we know where to find our community. After the state made changes, we were encouraged to go find our people and help them with this,” said Blanco.
Sara Cullinane, director of Make the Road New Jersey, another community-based group that is partnering with the state said that her organization has done up to eight clinics a week as demand has surged.
“We’re getting lines out the door, we’ve had to turn people away in some situations. The need is very overwhelming,” she said.
Wind of the Spirit has helped 1,400 applicants. Make the Road New Jersey said it helped around 3,000 people.
Previously incarcerated individuals who are returning from the justice system are also eligible for benefits. Make the Road said it has helped 20 homeless and previously incarcerated individuals apply for aid.
“We are glad to see more people take advantage of the expanded program eligibility and the extended deadline to apply for this benefit. There has been more interest as applicants no longer have to demonstrate a negative COVID impact to be eligible,” said Eva Loayza-McBride, a spokesperson for the Office of New Americans, which administers the fund.
The state has received 21,500 applications to date, said Loayza-McBride. Overall, 4,100 applications have been approved, and over $9.5 million in funding.
An additional 15,249 applications are being reviewed or need additional documentation to be completed.
Also, 531 were ineligible, and the remaining 5,000 odd applications are a combination of withdrawn or duplicate applications.
Advocates continue to call for additional relief, to the amount of a billion dollars to meet the needs of the state’s nearly 500,000 undocumented immigrants.
Patricia Medina-Campos, president of Latina Civic Action, a member of the state’s immigrant coalition, called on the state’s lawmakers to find ways to keep the fund open and funded, although she “applauded” the governor’s announcement that he will ensure all applicants to the fund will receive aid.
“We also know that hundreds of thousands of New Jersey immigrant families still need additional aid. We call on the NJ legislature to work with Gov. Murphy to find additional resources to keep the fund open and funded so we can ensure no one in New Jersey is left behind. New Jersey cannot fully recover as a state until everyone has recovered,” she said.
A statement released by the state’s legislative Latino Caucus thanked Murphy for replenishing the fund in January, saying that its members “had been persistent” with impressing upon the Murphy Administration the importance of restoring monies that had been diverted to internal expenses, though a spokesperson for the Senate Majority Leader, Sen. Teresa Ruiz did not confirm to The Record if she had spoken directly to Murphy about this issue.
Mary Ann Koruth covers education and immigrant communities 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.
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