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Jessica Brater, assistant professor at Montclair State University. COURTESY JESSICA BRATER

By LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
hochman@montclairlocal.news

At least two educators with ties to Montclair joined more than 130 others this week in calling for COVID-19 relief for immigrants living in the country without authorization.

The letter — organized and distributed by the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice, and addressed to Gov. Phil Murphy, state Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin — says the influence of the pandemic has “produced a stark difference in the classroom, particularly for children with undocumented parents.” It points to a New Jersey Policy Perspective Study that found service-sector workers living here without authorization would be the most likely to be harmed by the pandemic.

“Thus, children with undocumented parents, who now depend more heavily on their families for quality education, are at a disadvantage when their parents have a harder time supporting them,” the educators wrote.

Jessica Brater, an assistant professor at Montclair State University, said she’s seen that play out at MSU — designated by the U.S. Department of Education as a Hispanic-Serving Institution.

“We have a huge number of immigrant students or students that come from families of immigrants. … I feel very frustrated when they’re confronted with challenges that are unjust and inequitable, and that make it harder for them,” Brater told Montclair Local.

She said many of her students are frontline workers, and many of them are in the service industry.

“And certainly their level of stress is much higher than normal. Many of them also have parents who also work in those industries. They’re worried about their parents, and their grandparents,” she said.

Immigrants without authorization aren’t eligible for unemployment benefits, or for the federally funded supplements offered in the pandemic. The stimulus payments issued by the federal government last year, and others being considered by Congress now exclude them as well.

Brater said she’d like to see those barriers removed. She’d also like to see food security assistance, greater access to healthcare and housing support. And she said local municipal and county governments must do more to support families that are struggling.

“Immigrant families are being threatened with eviction and being forced to move even though there is a moratorium on evictions because they are vulnerable,” she said. “The assumption is that they may not fight the eviction.”

In a prepared statement accompanying the letter, Brater said she’s “begging NJ state officials to take care of my students.” Other educators providing supplemental comments via the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice said immigrant students have had to drop out of classes to care for family members, don’t always get the personnel support to make use of remote learning or remote work opportunities, and carry a heavy burden while caring for their loved ones.

Murphy on Wednesday said he’s looking forward to seeing New Jersey eventually participate in a Biden administration program to provide additional vaccine supply to Federally Qualified Health Centers — and he said that could provide some assistance in vaccinating immigrant communities.

“While no New Jersey centers were selected for the first phase of this federal program, our community health centers are already vaccinating residents they serve,” Murphy said. “These health centers provide care for underserved communities, communities which have been hit hard by COVID. And when we are selected, which we anticipate to be soon, this direct increase to our FQHCs will be an important tool for us as we continue to work to ensure equity in the distribution and administration of our vaccine program.”

Groups including Make the Road New Jersey have been pushing for COVID-19 relief for immigrant families throughout the pandemic. Friday, Make the Road delivered 10,000 of what it described as “heartbroken Valentine’s Day requests and cards” to Murphy and legislative leaders. It said it wants to see weekly flat rate cash payments of $600 to displaced workers, and stimulus payments to ITIN taxpayers excluded from federal stimulus. (Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers, issued by the IRS, are used so that people can pay taxes without Social Security Numbers, regardless of their immigration status.)

A bill introduced in the state Senate and Assembly last year would make a one-time payment to people excluded from federal stimulus funds. It hasn’t advanced in either chamber.

Murphy, in past statements, has said he’s open to relief for people living in the country without authorization, but stressed the state’s own financial strain in the pandemic.

Murphy said in April he was “open-minded to the $600 a week,” but “quite clearly we’re running out of money.”

Malinda Loflin, a supervisor for special education with the Passaic School District as well as a Montclair resident, also signed the letter. She has not yet returned a call placed to her work phone number.