‘Our state has forgotten us’: Immigrant groups sour on New Jersey’s liberal governor

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.”

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