TRENTON - Advocates for unauthorized immigrants are fuming after two-thirds of the $50 million in federal pandemic relief funds the state allocated for people who’d been ineligible for stimulus checks and unemployment benefits got redirected to other purposes.

Those groups wanted New Jersey to put $1 billion into relief programs that would mostly benefit the state’s undocumented immigrants. Instead, the state spending is on track to total $17 million.

Amy Torres, executive director of the Alliance for Immigrant Justice, said the problem with the Excluded New Jerseyans Fund wasn’t a lack of need or interest but inadequate outreach and excessive bureaucracy. The groups said there have been over 11,000 applicants and less than 3,000 approved.

“We reject that argument. We know that communities are paying attention to this but that hurdles have intentionally been placed in their way,” Torres said.

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“By closing this fund, by not providing for these communities, the state is perpetuating those same harms, perpetuating that cycle of exclusion,” she said.

The program is still taking applications through the end of January. The Murphy administration says it hired six community-based groups to help with outreach and reviewing applications and that the documentation being requested is required under federal law.

'State is just playing with us'

In an online news conference, nearly a half-dozen Spanish-speaking residents expressed their frustration with trying to obtain aid through the Excluded New Jerseyans Fund and the revelation that around $34 million in funding had lapsed.

“The state is using as an excuse that there wasn’t enough demand for this money. There wasn’t a demand for the fund,” said Rafael Santiago of the New Labor workers’ rights organization, through a translator. “But how is there going to be a demand when the system was designed to fail?”

“I’m angry,” said Norma Morales, a domestic worker in Lakewood. “I feel like the state is just playing with us, giving us the hope of a fund, which many of us need.”

“I don’t ask but I demand that all of us workers receive some compassion and receive a little bit of the many contributions we have given,” said Felix Gallardo of Make the Road New Jersey.

“This is just to show the community that Gov. Murphy does not care about us and that he will continue to lie and that other institutions will also do the same to our community,” said Arcelia Vivar of Cosecha.

Program hasn't closed yet

The Excluded New Jerseyans Fund was launched in October and included $40 million in coronavirus relief funds that had to be spent by Dec. 31 or would be forfeited back to the federal government. About $6 million had been spent.

The state added another $10 million in federal funds from the American Rescue Plan to the program in December. Those funds didn’t expire.

“Currently, there are available funds in the program to adequately fund eligible applications until Jan. 31,” said Johanna Calle, director of the Office of New Americans in the Department of Human Services. “Anyone who has applied for the ENJF and has been approved should know that they will receive their benefits. Benefit payments go out to approved applicants on a weekly basis.

The state hired six community-based organizations to review applications, determine eligibility and provide outreach, education and support. It says “the scope of work was clearly laid out” and that the ones selected said they could handle the work. The state provided training and met with them weekly.

“The administration has worked closely with nonprofit partners to ensure that the Excluded New Jerseyans Fund reaches those in need of assistance who were excluded from previous direct assistance,” said Alyana Alfaro, a spokeswoman for Murphy.

“In addition, the administration has taken actions to expand cash assistance amounts, increased capacity to process claims, and provided supplemental programmatic funds to expand the application window,” Alfaro said. “The governor remains committed to providing assistance to those who need it and encourages eligible applicants to apply to the Excluded New Jerseyans Fund this month."

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