PASSAIC, N.J. — Immigrant rights group were elated when Democrat Phil Murphy became governor of New Jersey in 2018.
After enduring eight years of Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s more conservative stances, immigrant activists had a new administration in Trenton that proclaimed New Jersey as a “sanctuary state,” encouraged law enforcement to cooperate less with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and gave financial aid to undocumented college students.
Now, as Murphy faces the nation’s only gubernatorial reelection battle, that goodwill is starting to fade.
Advocates for immigrants say they feel increasingly left out of Murphy’s agenda, as their calls for pandemic relief assistance for undocumented residents have been largely ignored. And as Murphy embarks on his reelection campaign, they say they are growing more frustrated, leaving some wondering whether he is putting them on the back burner and risks losing support among immigrant communities come November.
“I think there’s a political calculation from [Murphy’s] team that they don’t want to talk about immigrants,” said Patricia Campos-Medina, president of LUPE Action, an organization that works to increase the number of Latinas in office, and the former president of LUPE PAC, which endorsed Murphy in 2017. “I think it’s wrong. It doesn’t bode well for Latinos and immigrant advocates that he refuses to acknowledge the importance of this community at this time.”
The governor’s aides insist Murphy has been consistent in his approach to immigrant communities and cite his record of progressive policies for them.
But he faces a different political landscape in 2021: Former President Donald Trump — one of Murphy’s favorite political foils during the 2017 campaign who took a hard-line stance on immigration policies — is out of office. And, as a post-pandemic world begins to emerge, immigration policies have taken a backseat for many.
The governor’s likely Republican opponent — former state Assemblymember Jack Ciattarelli — has also avoided the inflammatory rhetoric around immigration that was present in 2017.
While then-GOP nominee Kim Guadagno, the lieutenant governor under Christie, compared immigrants to “deranged murderers,” Ciattarelli has taken a mainstream conservative law and order stance on the issue, declaring, for example, that local governments should cooperate with ICE.
Ciattarelli also said that in comments ranging from immigration to making New Jersey “the California of the East Coast,” Murphy seems to be walking back some of his more progressive rhetoric.
“I think the governor realizes that his rhetoric has been offensive to a great many New Jerseyans,” Ciattarelli said in an interview. “And it being an election year, he’s trying his best to dial it back.”
Jerrel Harvey, a Murphy campaign spokesperson, said in a statement that the governor “has not wavered” on immigration issues, though he did not respond to specific questions about whether any relief efforts would be made for undocumented residents or if the governor would take a firm stance on the contracts ICE has with several New Jersey counties.
“The Governor believes that we have a moral obligation to give our immigrant communities equal opportunity to thrive without living in fear,” Harvey said. “To live up to this standard, the Governor has implemented sweeping policy changes to ensure New Jersey’s immigrant family is no longer overlooked nor taken for granted.”
As the pandemic enters its second year, the absence of economic relief for New Jersey’s nearly 500,000 undocumented residents has created a vexing situation among advocates.
Proponents of relief say that as taxpaying undocumented workers remain excluded from federal relief efforts and pandemic-related unemployment benefits, the state should step in. They note other states, including California, Maryland and Washington have approved such monies for undocumented residents, though New Jersey has not. They also point to undocumented workers being more likely to be “essential workers.”
Opponents say the state cannot afford such benefits, especially for undocumented residents.
A coalition of groups — including Make the Road New Jersey, the Latino Action Network, LUPE PAC, NJ Alliance for Immigrant Justice and the union SEIU 32BJ — has lobbied lawmakers in Trenton over the past year for aid for undocumented residents.
They’ve held more than 30 protests across the state, an overnight encampment at the Statehouse and 10 town hall meetings with lawmakers. They’ve also sent letters to Murphy and top lawmakers with more than 60 signatories and put up a billboard along the New Jersey Turnpike in Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin’s district.
On Tuesday, they announced a grassroots voting effort to mobilize and back candidates who support pandemic relief assistance for undocumented residents.
“For an entire year, Latinx immigrants and our families have been left behind from nearly every form of aid,” Deyanira Aldana, lead organizer at Make the Road New Jersey, an immigrant advocacy group whose 501(c)(4) endorsed Murphy’s first run for office, said in a statement. “Our young men are dying at a rate seven times as high as white people. But our state has forgotten us. Latinx voters will not forget.”
A bill introduced last May, NJ S2480 (20R), that would allocate $35 million to provide a one-time payment to taxpaying undocumented residents, has yet to receive a committee hearing. And while Murphy’s proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 increases legal representation funds for immigration status issues from $6.2 million to $8.2 million and expands health care to undocumented children, the absence of direct immigrant aid goes against the governor’s progressive values, Campos-Medina said.
“If we do not take care of everybody or serve the most vulnerable — the undocumented who are keeping New Jersey citizens safe — then you can’t call yourself a progressive,” she said in an interview. “When you’re a progressive, you take care of the most vulnerable.”
Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), who sponsored S2480, said she would try to get the extra money into the budget.
“I want to bring this topic back up to see if there are creative ways that we can implement what the intent of the bill was,” she said in an interview.
There have been other frustrations.
Murphy drew the ire of immigrant groups for not taking a firm stance against controversial ICE contracts with Hudson and Bergen counties, which resulted in hunger strikes and confrontations with law enforcement at the two county jails late last year. The jails were criticized for allegedly poor living conditions, which were susceptible to the spread of Covid.
While the contracts are out of the state’s purview, immigrant groups said they were disappointed with Murphy’s noncommittal response.
“I’ve not seen the governor flex his political position as lead Democrat in the state to tell these local Democratically controlled counties that they need to act like Democrats,” said Amy Torres, executive director of New Jersey Alliance For Immigrant Justice. “It’s a real shame for New Jersey to call itself a blue state, and operate its prisons in jails like one of the reddest states.”
Immigrant groups say Murphy should stay attuned to their communities, or what was once an enthusiastic constituency could become a political vulnerability.
“[Murphy had] upwards of 80 percent of the Latino vote in 2017,” said Sara Cullinane of Make the Road New Jersey. “A lot of that was due to his really powerful stance on protecting immigrant communities. If that same sort of stance isn’t here this time around, I’m not sure he’ll see the same type of support.”
Though advocates acknowledge Murphy has accomplished much of what’s been on their agenda, excluding aid for undocumented residents taints his reputation as a progressive, they say, and leaves one resume gap that is important for him to fill.
“[Murphy has] made sweeping changes that make our state much more fair and welcoming for immigrants,” Cullinane said. “But by leaving a half million immigrants behind from aid, he signals that their survival in the pandemic isn’t as important. It casts a shadow on the rest of his work.”