October 26, 2021 Joe Amditis

For NJ Korean immigrants, economic recovery is still out of reach

By Phillip Han, Miju News (Korean Business Journal)

This story was produced as part of a six-month COVID-19 reporting fellowship with NJ ethnic and community media organized by the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University. It has been updated and edited from its original version.


BERGEN, NJ — If the coronavirus recession is practically over, why are thousands of Korean immigrants still suffering?

That was the question asked by Koreans—especially among undocumented immigrants—in New Jersey. Many of whom haven’t had access to healthcare, have experienced job instability, and have been excluded from any government pandemic relief.

In the New Jersey and New York areas, there are an estimated 40,000 Korean undocumented immigrants, according to the latest census. These immigrants, who have a small business or work in the hospitality and service industry, have been disproportionately devastated by the coronavirus pandemic.

“Most of them are low-income workers,” said a spokesperson for the Korean Community Center (KCC) in New Jersey. “They have had a hard time supporting themselves and their families.”

And since they are not eligible for unemployment benefits because of their immigration status, community leaders say, these workers can only rely on assistance from the community.

Muzaffar Chishti, senior fellow and director of Migration Policy Institute (MPI) office at NYU School of Law, said that the pandemic has laid bare many issues of inequality in the United States, most particularly among immigrants.

“A disproportionate number of [undocumented] immigrant workers have been feeling the economic hardship,” Chisti said at a recent briefing with ethnic press organized by the Center for Cooperative Media.

In 2020, he noted that about 14.4 million immigrants in the U.S. were excluded from federal and state government aid.

Korean groups respond

Aware of the dire situation that Korean undocumented immigrants in the state have been experiencing since the pandemic struck the United States, several Korean community groups have stepped up to the plate.

The community groups—including Korea Society, Korean Community Services, Minkwon Civil Rights Center and 21 Hope Foundation—have put their resources together to financially help Korean undocumented immigrants who are in need.

Led by the Korean American Association of Greater New York, the coalition has provided more than 3,000 Korean undocumented immigrants with food certificates. From September 2020 to September 2021, the group raised a total of $1.5 million to secure food stamps.

Because the government has carved undocumented immigrants from federal and state aid, including the one-time stimulus checks, the coalition of Korean community groups had also given out cash assistance to about 1,500 affected undocumented families in New Jersey and New York.

Kapsong Kim, director of Korean American Community Development at Minkwon Civil Rights Center, said that his organization has provided unemployment benefits for Korean undocumented immigrants in the state.

“Some of the recipients have received a lump sum payment of up to $15,600 in the form of a debit card,” said Kim.

Other Korean businesses, like the owners of Kiss, a Korean beauty supply company, also contributed about $400,000 to support Korean undocumented immigrants, especially those who are delayed on their rental payments.

“I am very satisfied to see Korean undocumented immigrants [and their families] happy when they received the gift certificates,” said Young Ju Shin, general manager of Korean American Association of Greater New York. “It’s wonderful that [this assistance program] benefits as many people as possible.”

Photo caption: Korean American Association of Greater New York distribute H Mart certificate to the Korean Community during the COVID-19 Pandemic (Phillip Han).

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Joe Amditis

Joe Amditis is the associate director of the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University. He can be reached via email at [email protected] and on Twitter at @jsamditis.