Thirty-five people are on a hunger strike to pressure Gov. Phil Murphy to create a relief fund for undocumented immigrants. Members of Make the Road New Jersey rallied in Newark on Wednesday April 14.
( Karen Yi/WNYC
Tanzina: This was the scene in New York City this past March. When demonstrators took over the Brooklyn Bridge and called for undocumented workers to get direct financial assistance during the pandemic. At that point, they didn't qualify for any compensation. That includes Maria Sierra a street vendor who says that she's been working in New York City since 1993.
Maria Sierra: [Spanish language]
Translator: It's affected me a lot because I sat on the street independently and everything was closed because everyone was infected and I came here to sell but nobody was outside.
Tanzina: Sierra and others in her shoes decided it was time to take action. They marched chanted and even held a hunger strike and eventually, they won. New York would offer the country's largest excluded workers' fund in April a $2.1 billion relief program for undocumented workers, dwarfing California's $75 million deal. New Jersey and Washington followed with programs of their own, but now a new problem is emerging. The money allocated to the workers is running out.
In New York, nearly 350,000 people have filed claims for the fund but over two-thirds of it has already been issued to over 130,000 people. That means that thousands of people who applied likely won't see any benefits. Advocates are calling for the funds to be renewed but some have been met with opposition from lawmakers at the state level, leaving it unclear whether undocumented workers get another chance for pandemic relief.
To find out more about these funds I spoke with Bianca Guerrero the Campaign Coordinator of the Fund Excluded Workers' Coalition and Amy Torres Executive Director at the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice
Amy Torres: In New Jersey, the recovery for all coalition is a group that is pushing for new Jerseyans who have been excluded from federal relief. It's been more than a year and a half since the first federal relief checks from the pandemic went out. The many immigrant households were ineligible and excluded from that money, so there was a push at the state level to create a state fund that would provide relief for immigrants and workers who were excluded
Tanzina: Bianca in New York. They set up a $2 billion fund and we've been hearing that that program is close to running dry. Can you talk about what's going on there?
Bianca Guerrero: For sure, so similar to New Jersey our program is serving New Yorkers who were left out of unemployment and it's federal relief for the COVID pandemic. So far nearly $2 billion has been doled out to New Yorkers across the state. We are seeing record amounts of demand at some points during the applications which opened in August 1st. We saw up to 2,0000 people applying each day.
These are immigrant New Yorkers, undocumented New Yorkers who were on the front lines of the pandemic whether they were delivery workers, domestic workers, day laborers, nannies, you name it, that really held down our state while the pandemic was raging but were left with nothing. Finally, these folks are getting checks for up to $15,600 before taxes to pay down their debt, to buy their kids school uniforms, to pay back utility bills, and rent arrears, and for some people to get out of abusive relationships and abusive workplaces, to pay off medical bills that they were unable to pay during the last year and a half.
We've heard from every corner of the state that while 2.1 billion is a really big number, it's simply not enough to meet the need. There are thousands of workers across the state, whether it's due to policy reasons or just because they didn't find out about the fund in time or they struggle to gather documents because consulates were offering appointments out months in advance to renew passports, for one reason or another folks were unable to apply.
We've seen the money gets spent down very very quickly which is exciting. We are really glad that money is getting into workers' hands but at the same time we're hearing that there's outstanding demand that needs to be met
Tanzina: I know, Bianca, that your organization had to put a lot of work into just getting this initial fund set up. There was a lot of organizing that happened, rallies, you closed bridges. There was a hunger strike back in March. Can you talk more about what it took just to get this set up to begin with?
Bianca Guerrero: This all started in 2020 on the pantry lines across New York State organizers and community organizations that has shifted towards direct services, really realizing that the people who were most in need and didn't have any other recourse were undocumented
New Yorkers. Having conversations with those workers to help them understand that, they pay taxes. They should be able to buy and do or benefit from the social safety net that everyone else benefits from and that is making unemployment insurance possible for the rest of New York during that really trying time.
First, it began with those conversations. It moved to legislative meetings to ask legislators at the state level to come up with a solution and then it moved to marches, rallies, eventually culminating in a hunger strike in March into April of this year in both New York City and in Westchester. The organizing was really really relentless throughout the hunger strike which lasted 23 days. There was a foot-washing ceremony where legislators were washing the feet of the hunger strikers. There was an Easter day-like procession and mass outside of Governor Cuomo's and office to pressure him to include this in the budget.
Everything was led by directly impacted workers who had had enough and had nothing left to lose and so they decided to put everything including their wellbeing on the line to secure this economic support for their communities.
Tanzina: Amy if you could talk about in New Jersey I know it's a $40 million fund. It also took more than a year of pressure to secure it also including hunger strikes. Why do you think it took so long? Is there some sort of lifeline for workers when the funds run out?
Amy Torres: Look, I think if you were to ask decision-makers what took so long, you'd likely hear answers ranging from, we didn't know where the money would come from, to, there wasn't enough money to dole out this first time around. I think from the perspective of community and what we've heard is that time and again our communities feel ignored and deprioritized in state policies.
It's not lost on any of us that 2021 was a statewide election year for New Jersey, but in a state where one in four New Jerseyans is foreign-born, where one in six of us lives with an immigrant household member and we're 17% of the state is part of the naturalized immigrant voting-age citizens, every single issue is an immigrant justice issue and recovery for all is a priority for our communities.
To see the ways that our families have been left out, to see the ways that our neighbors have been left out, that our communities have been left out, is really disheartening, but we feel hopeful for the road ahead. I think there's a two-pronged approach to how we make sure that this fund actually delivers on what our communities deserve.
The fund at $40 million is a flat cap per household, 2000 per household for individuals that were excluded from federal stimulus and pandemic aid. At that amount, the fund is expected to reach fewer than 10% of individuals who were excluded
Tanzina: Bianca. This is the first time New York has set up a fund like this, but there was a finite amount of funding as you said, but Amy raised a point that is very relevant to New York which is, this is a very big election year coming in New York. What effort is being put into instituting an ongoing fund like this? To what extent do you think it will become an issue in this upcoming cycle of elections?
Bianca Guerrero: I definitely agree with Amy around everything that was mentioned about the need for more money and a proper rollout. This will definitely be a prominent issue in the 2020 cycle both for the legislature and making sure that we secure more money in next year's budget. I'm sure in the gubernatorial considerations as well.
It will be a big issue because we have thousands of workers across the state who have learned about the fund, who have been left out and don't think it's fair that just because they didn't find out about something and in a nine-month or nine-week window when the applications were open, that that means that they should be saddled with the debt from the pandemic or any of the economic sacrifices that they've made for the rest of their life.
They are New Yorkers just like everyone else and they deserve to be supported by their state government just as well.
We are really glad that Governor Hochul has made distributing the existing funds as a priority from day one. We also know that the true test of success for this program and the true test of success for her dedication to immigrant New Yorkers will be on making sure the full job is complete. That every single excluded worker in New York that is eligible receives the benefits that they need.
Tanzina: I wanted to ask, getting the funds set up obviously it was the first step but I wonder, Amy, if you would you speak to the access challenges associated with it? When you're trying to reach people maybe some of whom are in urban areas but maybe some who are in rural areas that aren't as connected to some of the community organizations who could help them with the applications and some of the associated paperwork. What needs to be done to ensure that people who are actually eligible know these funds exist and can do what they need to do to apply for them?
Amy Torres: Well, I think the top priority is making sure that there's more money in the fund. If you're someone who's applying and you've been excluded from the process for this long, to see a small amount, and know that there are sometimes onerous documentation requirements, like the ones that Bianca mentioned, that there might be a lot of paperwork that needs to be gathered that you don't have access to at the moment, it's not difficult to imagine that someone would then be disincentivized from applying simply because they think they won't be the first to take a shot at a very small slice of a small pie.
There's only so much that can happen with a limited pool. With a larger pool, we can deeply invest in public education and outreach, make sure that people are able to find the documents that they need to prove eligibility, and that we can also take the learnings from this initial process to refine the application process going forward and make sure that people are not having to prove negativity and instead prove their eligibility for the fund.
Tanzina: Amy Torres is Executive Director of the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice, and Bianca Guerrero is the Campaign Coordinator of the Fund Excluded Workers' Coalition. Thanks so much to you both.
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