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Murphy will add money to NJ’s immigrant fund after flood of applications

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy will add more federal money to the state’s fund for immigrant workers after a surge of new applicants risked emptying out the $40 million pot before the application window closed.

Murphy said he will allocate extra American Rescue Plan dollars to ensure those who apply through the February 28th deadline — and are approved — can get help.

“This fund provides a much needed financial boost to families who were previously excluded from federal assistance,” Gov. Phil Murphy said in a statement on Thursday. “By committing this additional funding, we are making sure eligible families can continue to apply through the end of the month, and that those whose applications are approved will receive their benefits.”

The state initially redirected most of the fund’s money after officials said not enough people applied. Only 11,000 had applied in a three-month period from October to January. But after Gothamist reported $34 million would be re-allocated to other state expenses and immigrant advocacy groups expressed outrage, Murphy replenished the fund and the state eased the application process.

Applicants no longer need to prove they were affected by the pandemic. Workers who are eligible for the fund because they were excluded from other forms of federal and state pandemic relief and unemployment benefits, often work in the informal economy and don’t always have employer letters verifying a quarantine period, bank statements showing a decrease in income or other ways to document the impacts of COVID.

Since that requirement was removed three weeks ago, the state has received as many applications as it did in the last three months.

“It is thanks to the enormous community pressure calling to simplify the Excluded New Jerseyans application that we now arrive at this moment,” Amy Torres, executive director of the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice, said.

“In less than three weeks since the process was improved, the number of applications has exceeded the amount of money the state originally invested in the program,” she added. “That’s a huge validation to our communities who were disheartened by past comments suggesting the low number of applications was due to their disinterest or lack of awareness.”

The Department of Human Services, which is administering the fund, said more than 21,500 applications had been submitted since the fund opened in late October. Of those, more than 4,000 have been approved for more than $9.5 million in benefits. Individuals receive a one-time $2,000 payment with a cap of $4,000 per household.

Of the remaining applications, 531 were found ineligible and 15,000 are under review or awaiting additional documentation.

Mariana Velasquez, an organizer with Make the Road New Jersey, applied for the fund and said it was the first time she was able to get aid during the pandemic.

“I worked in a health clinic during the pandemic as a frontline, essential worker, but when I got sick and couldn’t go back to work, I was ineligible for unemployment and didn’t receive a stimulus payment,” she said in a statement. “There are a half million people like me in New Jersey that have been excluded from every form of aid. We have been suffering for two years.”

Immigrant groups praised Murphy’s decision to allocate additional funds but said that would still fall short of the need, which they estimate at $1 billion. New Jersey is home to more than half a million undocumented immigrants.

Others called for a more efficient application reviews. The state is working with five nonprofits to review applications.

“My application was approved a month ago and I still haven’t received the check. You need to hire more people to speed up the applications,” said Evelin Hernadez, a member of the group, New Labor.

The state is encouraging people to apply as soon as possible but said as long as an application is in by the end of the month, an applicant can still upload additional documents later.

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