Even when New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy is narrating the latest on COVID, he retains the affability of an old-fashioned soft shoe-vaudevillian, replete with his straw hat and self-effacing humor. He slides and glides with such facility he can hold the spotlight while appearing to be on every side of a question because what he values must is being liked.
That’s not a bad quality for someone seeking re-election and it’s a congenial break from former Gov. Christie’s World Federation Wrestling approach.
But as we get closer to the November election, the one issue that he’ll have a hard time tap dancing past will be New Jersey’s approach to its roughly half-million undocumented immigrants. Tens of thousands of them have been on the frontlines of the pandemic putting themselves and their families’ health at risk to serve everybody else.
Even President Biden, a far more experienced politician and old school hoofer himself, has trouble with just how to choreograph his response to the immigration issue as evidenced with his administration’s pirouette last week after the White House got blasted by fellow Democrats for sticking with President Trump’s historically low number of refugees cleared for admission to the U.S.
Perhaps there’s no greater test for a politician who wants to be described as progressive than how to handle the nation’s red-hot ambivalence on the subject.
It’s a tricky political calculus. While speaking up on behalf of the undocumented you might establish credibility with the members of their families that are voters you also run the risk of outraging hundreds of thousands of voters for whom illegal immigration is the defining issue.
Research on the undocumented done by the Pew Research Center shows that New Jersey is one of the top states where the undocumented most frequently settle, making up 5.2 percent of our population. Yet, they make up a much larger percentage of the essential low wage workers caring for the elderly in congregant settings and as the arms and legs of so much of the face-to- face economy.
And contrary to popular belief, New Jersey’s undocumented, just like the undocumented living in the other 49 states, pay billions in taxes each year.
In 2017, the Institute of Taxation and Economic Policy reported that while the undocumented are at least fifty percent compliant in filing income taxes, one in three actually owned a home here and contributed close to $12 billion in state and local taxes. More than half a billion of that came from the Garden State’s undocumented.
“Undocumented immigrants nationwide pay on average an estimated 8 percent of their incomes in state and local taxes (this is their effective state and local tax rate),” ITEP researchers found. “To put this in perspective, the top 1 percent of taxpayers pay an average nationwide effective tax rate of just 5.4 percent.”
In New Jersey, since 2010 undocumented immigrant workers have contributed $1.36 billion into the state’s unemployment insurance fund but not been able to collect any benefits, according to New Jersey Policy Perspective.
In 2017, Mr. Murphy as a first-time candidate with no previous elective office experience, had no record on the issue of how best to address integrating what is a very vibrant facet of a state’s whose out migration has resulted in the steady loss of Congressional representation.
In the final days of that race former Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno tried to revive her flagging campaign by picking up on President Trump’s themes of linking undocumented immigrants to violent crime, an assertion that’s contrary to the academic research of the subject that finds that population less likely to commit such crimes.
Three years later Trump’s anti-immigrant base, while not the majority endures. In October, a Stockton University poll found that one in three New Jersey adults surveyed thought that Trump had been doing either an “excellent” or “good” job in his response to COVID, with another 11 percent giving him a “fair” grade.
Yes, it is true the President-elect Biden won more votes than any president in U.S. history, but President Trump also got the second highest total ever, adding several million votes to his 2016 total.
In the last election cycle Trump carried Ocean, Cape May, Salem, Hunterdon, Warren and Sussex counties and added to his vote totals from 2016 in Atlantic, Bergen, Burlington, Gloucester, Hunterdon, and Mercer counties.
And what happened in the state’s 2nd CD, with the victory of Jeff Van Drew, the Democrat turned Trumpian Republican, over Amy Kennedy, a Democrat with a marquee name, was instructive of the MAGA base durability.
During his first term, Gov. Murphy danced with President Trump as required during the pandemic giving lip service to a non-existent White House competency with a knee-to-knee photo op while at the same time making it possible for the state’s undocumented residents to qualify for state professional licenses in nursing, cosmetology and counseling.
“New Jersey is stronger when everyone is given the opportunity to contribute and everyone is given a chance to live their American Dream,” said Governor Murphy. “This law sends a simple, powerful message that immigration status can no longer be used as an excuse to discriminate among equally educated, trained, and qualified individuals. As we look toward our shared economic future, we must ensure that no one is left behind and everyone who puts forward the effort can succeed.”
Back in January of 2020, after that measure was enacted the praise poured in from the immigrant rights community.
“As an aspiring doctor, I faced barriers to pursuing a career in medicine due to my immigration status at a moment when our state needs us most,” said Estrella Rivas, Youth Leader at Make the Road New Jersey and Third-Year Premed Student at Rutgers University. “Today, I no longer have to watch from the sidelines, I can pursue my degree and be there to provide aid to our most vulnerable New Jerseyans.”
“Today is the culmination of a two-year campaign for access to occupational licenses led by immigrants from all walks of life,” said Erika Martinez, Organizer at Make the Road New Jersey. “Today, as the Trump administration threatens DACA and continues to separate our families, we win the freedom to thrive. With this law, New Jersey becomes the first state on the East Coast to extend occupational licenses to undocumented immigrants.”
“This is another step forward for New Jersey and the humane and progressive agenda championed by Governor Murphy,” said Frank Argote-Freyre, Chair of the Latino Action Network Foundation. “This legislation will economically empower thousands of hard-working immigrants across the state. It will also allow New Jersey to tap into a vast and diverse pool of talent unavailable to it before. The other advantage is it will fill critical shortages in many professions. Everyone wins.”
In addition to opening up professional licensing, Gov. Murphy expanded state financial aid for college students regardless of their immigration status; limited voluntary cooperation between local law enforcement agencies and federal immigration agencies; signed legislation to make it possible for immigrants, no matter what their legal status, to get a driver’s license; and filed 11 lawsuits against Trump’s anti-immigrant policies.
But as his re-election campaign started to gear up, immigrant rights groups have become increasingly disenchanted with Gov. Murphy, who they contend has ignored their pleas for the kind of COVID-19 relief that the rest of New Jersey’s unemployed have received throughout the public health crisis.
“I think there’s a political calculation from [Murphy’s] team that they don’t want to talk about immigrants,” Patricia Campos-Medina, president of LUPE Action, which works to increase the number of Latinas in office, told Politico. “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.”
After New York State’s legislature recently raised the taxes on that state’s wealthiest households and created the nation’s first unemployment benefit for undocumented workers with $2.1 billion, Gov. Murphy’s offer of just $40 million fell flat and was dismissed as “insulting” by immigrant rights advocates.
“This is completely insufficient. It’s insulting to our communities who have accrued thousands of dollars worth of debt,” Katy Sastre, with the Immigrant Alliance for Justice, told NJ.com. “It comes out to $96 each person. That won’t even pay a phone bill.”
, Mayor of Parsippany, is here in solidarity w/ our #Fast4Relief faster & is calling on @GovMurphy
+ state legislature to provide relief. “When you call them essential workers, you better treat them as essential workers. We have to take care of everyone.”