Unauthorized immigrants are the forgotten heroes. So treat them as such | Editorial

Posted Jul 09, 2020

Here’s a little-known fact about the 460,000 undocumented immigrants in our state: They pay taxes like most New Jerseyans.

In fact, they pay $600 million in state and local taxes every year, along with $1.1 billion in federal taxes. They pay the payroll tax, which is that portion of each check that finances the unemployment insurance trust fund — a total of $1.3 billion in the past decade, according to NJ Policy Perspective.

But when the coronavirus struck, our undocumented population was not eligible for unemployment benefits. They didn’t see a penny of the stimulus money from Washington — not even if they are military. They are not eligible for food stamps.

So they support our public services just like all taxpaying New Jerseyans, but during the worst economic crisis of our lifetime, they were railroaded into a barren corner of a luck-starved neighborhood.

That is the cruel reality we need to reconcile in our state — the sooner, the better — and it’s mystifying that the Murphy Administration isn’t providing the assistance this population has earned.

It starts by acknowledging that this group was slammed harder by Covid than any other: While we stayed at home during the darkest hour, these people put their lives in jeopardy, doing the jobs deemed essential by the Trump Administration, even as their rights are further eroded. They did the janitorial work, the farm work, the food deliveries and the heavy lifting at warehouses and supermarkets. We need them, period.

And if they weren’t working for that poverty wage, it was because they were laid off from their retail job, restaurant or homecare position — without any means to support their families.

It is perplexing that we have not given them a safety net — yes, even when we must concede that the state is broke.

Other states are finding ways. In California, they used general funds and charitable contribution to give 150,000 undocumented immigrants between $500 and $1,000 during the outbreak. In New York, the Open Society Foundations triggered a relief fund with a $20 million donation. In a half-dozen other states, including Connecticut, they allocated money from CARES Act for emergency assistance.

Make the Road New Jersey, the immigration advocacy group, has studied the undocumented population, and it notes that 85 percent are without health care; and they were left out of stimulus payments even though they have a total of 225,000 spouses and children who were born here. Citizens, too, should not be victims of bad immigration policy.

So a reasonable first step is a bill currently sitting in the Senate Budget Committee from Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), which would provide one-time payments for undocumented taxpayers — $500 for individuals, $1,000 for families with children.

“This is not a panacea,” Ruiz said of her bill, which has 17 co-sponsors and a $35 million price tag. “I just know the fiscal reality of what we’re dealing with, and there’s been mostly silence from the administration.”

She will pursue some creative ways to finance the cause — perhaps through philanthropic partnerships, or through the Cares Act — but the need is immediate.

Even a persistent budget hawk such as Sen. Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth) admits her bill has merit. If the beneficiaries are taxpayers, he says, “They are contributing to our state’s bottom line, they are a net-plus financially, and that is enough reason to at least look at this. And I know I’m going to take a hit for saying that, but this is too nuanced to get a knee-jerk reaction.”

It is not clear whether the Murphy Administration shares O’Scanlon’s common sense and compassion. Asked about the governor’s plan to assist this overlooked population, a spokesperson pointed to a rental assistance program from the Department of Community Affairs, which provides up to six months of help and is open to undocumented immigrants. That $100 million fund, however, is a lottery system that will cover only about 17,500 families. There has been no outreach, and no one has a clue what small share might go to immigrants.

Yes, $35 million is a big ask. But each time we drive by lawn signs or billboards that mark the presence of a “hero,” we should remember that many of those heroes, these essential workers, are undocumented immigrants. They deserve more than lip service and platitudes. And they have been neglected long enough.

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