Undocumented immigrants get cash assistance from New Jersey pandemic charity
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They arrived early Saturday, some with their young children in arms and in strollers, and lined up outside Temple of Unified Christians Brick Church in East Orange.
The immigrants, many from Haiti and Latin America, had signed up to receive gift cards from the New Jersey Pandemic Relief Fund, which was founded last year by first lady Tammy Murphy. On Saturday, the fund distributed hundreds of gift cards valued at $1,000 and $500 to undocumented immigrants who lost income due to the coronavirus pandemic and have been left out of government assistance programs.
"I hope this amount of money that we are able to give is going to help you and your family in some way, whether it's putting food on the table or helping you make a rent payment or maybe doing something fun with your kids,'' said Murphy, who helped distribute the cards in East Orange. "We are really proud of what we have been able to do; we are going to keep at this as long as this pandemic is here and we have the funds to do so."
The New Jersey Pandemic Relief Fund has collected more than $64 million from more than 62,000 donors, including $20 million from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott, who is the ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. The fund received $4.5 million from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation last year to help immigrants in the state.
The fund has awarded grants to various charities across New Jersey, including those that fight food insecurity and agencies that address the health care needs of the state's most vulnerable populations.
The fund has also distributed $12 million to undocumented immigrants in New Jersey since the start of the pandemic. The most recent distribution of $6 million includes $5 million to 10 organizations throughout the state, among them, Wind of the Spirit, a Morristown-based organization that lobbies for immigrant rights, and CUMAC, a Paterson food pantry. The organizations have been tasked with distributing gift cards that can be turned into cash to undocumented immigrants they serve.
The fund is also working with Rutgers University and other public universities and community colleges to provide $1 million in direct aid to support students who don't have legal status, and who are at risk of dropping out of school to help support their families.
Dianne Sanon-Garay, who works for the East Orange church, was in charge of reaching out to immigrant families in the community who would qualify for assistance through the fund. She said many of the immigrants who signed up worked in housekeeping and restaurants and lost their employment with the pandemic.
Because they are undocumented, they don't qualify for unemployment benefits or stimulus checks. She said many she's spoken to want to be able to provide for their families again.
"You see the turnout, and it's needed,'' she said, noting it was the third time the church was distributing the cards. "They all want to work, and a lot of them are proud and don't want to beg for help ... they don't want to be a burden, they just want to work."
Fernando Cruz, 59, of Elizabeth was among the first to arrive at the church around 7 a.m. He said at the start of the pandemic he was afraid to go to work at his warehouse job. Cruz, who was born in Ecuador, said since then he has had part-time work on occasion and only last week returned to working full time again. He said he relied on savings to pay rent and groceries.
Cruz received a $500 gift card on Saturday and said he would use it to pay off some debts.
Lilian Joseph, 30, of Essex County said she would use the $1,000 she received to pay rent and buy food for her three children. Joseph, who was born in Haiti, said she was grateful for the help.
Sandra Carvajal of Elizabeth said she lost her job at a clothing store last March after it shut down due to the pandemic. She had been working at the store for more than four years. Carvajal, who moved to New Jersey from El Salvador 14 years ago, said it's been difficult to not have a job or health insurance during these times.
"We don't receive any help, so our situation is even more difficult, even though I know many people are struggling,'' said Carvajal, the mother of two children ages 9 and 2.
The Rev. Amir Khan, president of New Beginnings, a nonprofit in Camden that serves the homeless and formerly incarcerated, said he planned to distribute an additional 400 gift cards in Camden later in the day. The fund previously paid for 400 cards that were distributed a few months ago to undocumented immigrants in South Jersey.
"They are hardworking people who are doing all they can to make ends meet and things were already tight, and when the pandemic came, they lost jobs and contracts,'' he said. "We are trying to do our best to help them."
There are an estimated 475,000 undocumented immigrants who live in New Jersey, according to 2019 figures from the Pew Research Center.
Monsy Alvarado is the immigration reporter for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to the latest news about one of the hottest issues in our state and country, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.