Undocumented Workers Go On Hunger Strike For COVID-19 Relief In New Jersey

Undocumented immigrants are on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic — but have been excluded from government stimulus and unemployment benefits.

Margarita Rodriguez was out of work for months last year after losing her warehouse job due to the coronavirus pandemic. She’s since found work in a deli, putting her health at risk to provide for her three kids. But because she’s undocumented, she hasn’t received a dime of the government’s COVID-19 relief money.

Now Rodriguez is one of over 30 undocumented workers in New Jersey who have been on a hunger strike for nine days, demanding the state provide COVID-19 relief funds to excluded workers.

“We are contributing our labor, our money to the state — it’s unfair that they leave us out of the stimulus,” said Rodriguez, 40, noting that she and other undocumented workers pay taxes.

“As an essential worker, we are very exposed, interacting with people daily,” the mother of three said in Spanish. “We are at risk.”

While immigrants have been on the front lines of the pandemic as essential workers, undocumented people nationwide have been ineligible for unemployment insurance due to their immigration status and have also been excluded from all three stimulus payments from the federal government.

Organizers with immigrant rights group Make the Road New Jersey have been demanding that the state provide unemployment payments of $600 per week to undocumented workers who lost jobs due to the pandemic and one-time payments of $2,000 to those who were left out of the federal stimulus.

Last week, lawmakers in neighboring New York passed legislation — after weeks of similar hunger strikes by undocumented workers — creating a $2.1 billion Excluded Worker Fund to give one-time payments of up to $15,600 to undocumented workers who lost jobs or income due to COVID-19.

A spokesperson for New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) told HuffPost that his administration is “exploring ways to further assist members of our immigrant community during this challenging time,” but did not provide details on whether or how much direct relief the state would give to undocumented workers.

Earlier this week, the governor’s office reportedly suggested committing some $40 million to such a fund in a call with organizers, far less than what workers are requesting for the state’s nearly half a million undocumented immigrants.

In February, California passed some relief for undocumented workers in the form of $600 one-time payments to those who pay taxes.

Undocumented immigrants are among those hardest hit by the pandemic and its economic fallout. They are overrepresented in fields that have seen massive layoffs due to COVID-19 restrictions, including the restaurant and hotel industries. Undocumented workers also make up significant portions of those deemed essential on the front lines of the pandemic ― including grocery workers, farmworkers and cleaners — who are risking their lives to work while millions of others in the U.S. are able to stay home.

As the virus’ death toll passes 565,000 in the U.S., Latinx and Black people have been about three times as likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 as white people have, and twice as likely to die.

“Keep raising your voice,” Rodriguez said to her fellow undocumented workers. “Enough of staying silent. As immigrant workers, we also count.”

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