October 9, 2021 Joe Amditis

No papers, no assistance: Chinese undocumented immigrants in New Jersey continue to struggle amid the pandemic

By April Xu, Sing Tao Daily

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.


MIDDLESEX, NJ — Alex Chen is an undocumented immigrant. He cooks, washes dishes, and serves at a Chinese restaurant in Paterson, NJ.

Even though he still feels unsafe because of the coronavirus, he needs to work six days a week to make ends meet and bring food to the table for his family.

“I can’t stop working. Because of my immigration status, I’m afraid to apply for public assistance. I don’t want to get myself in trouble,” Chen said.

Chen is among the thousands of Chinese undocumented immigrants in New Jersey.  There are an estimated 425,000 undocumented immigrants, according to immigration experts, in the state.

Like Chen, undocumented immigrants—including frontline and essential workers—are disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

Despite their contributions to the economy, most of them are ineligible for public assistance, such as food stamps, housing assistance, unemployment benefits, and stimulus aid.

“I have seen him [Chen] experiencing economic hardships. I feel sorry that he could not even avail of any [federal stimulus aid],” said Shigan Zheng, honorary president of United Fujianese of America Association, who has helped Chen and known him for many years.

In New Jersey, according to community leaders, there are undocumented Chinese immigrants who don’t have health insurance and proper health care.

Because they are concerned that “they will be in the system,” if they visit a public clinic, community leaders said that these immigrants are compelled to rely on traditional Chinese medicine, even if this medicine has not been proven to be effective in preventing or treating COVID-19.

“Most Chinese people wouldn’t want to protect themselves by just taking [traditional] Chinese medicine. But they (undocumented Chinese immigrants) have no choice, because they don’t have health insurance and access to health care,” said Stan Li, head of Fukien American Association of New Jersey.

However, Li noted that there are barriers to getting public assistance even for some Chinese documented immigrant workers in the food service industry.

When restaurants shut down during the height of the pandemic, he said, these workers could not even apply for unemployment benefits.

“Many Chinese restaurant workers get their wages in cash,” Li added, “and that makes it harder for them to submit documents when applying for assistance during the pandemic.”

According to data analysis by the Center for Cooperative Media (CCM), about 1.6 million people in New Jersey live in families with at least one non-U.S. citizen in the household.

Approximately 32 percent of New Jersey workers in frontline industries are immigrants, including about 29 percent of grocery workers, 31 percent of healthcare workers, and 56 percent of workers in the building cleaning service industries.

Before COVID-19, 754,000 unemployed New Jersey residents, including 330,000 non-U.S. citizens, did not have public or private health insurance coverage, the CCM fact sheet said.

Today, the CCM report said, 1,060,000 New Jersey residents are unemployed, including 463,000 non-U.S. citizens.

As the U.S. economy recovers from the coronavirus pandemic, millions of immigrants in New Jersey remain to be in a dire situation, said Muzaffar Chishti, director of the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) office at New York University School of Law.

Immigrants, he reiterated, continue to experience high levels of food insecurity, unemployment and evictions.

“We realized that COVID-19 has laid bare the many inequalities in our country, especially among immigrants,” said Chishti. “A disproportionate number of frontline workers are immigrants, but a disproportionate number of immigrants are also falling victims of the disease.”

In September, according to Nedia Morsy, director of organizing at Make the Road NJ, marked the 18th month that tax-paying undocumented immigrant workers and their families in New Jersey have been left behind.

“New Jersey has the fourth largest population of undocumented people in the country. These [undocumented New Jerseyans] pay about $600 million in state and local taxes each year and more than $1 billion in federal taxes,” said Morsy.

However, she pointed out that the federal CARES Act excluded undocumented immigrants and their children, most of whom are U.S. citizens, from stimulus payments. Most of these undocumented immigrants, she added, have filed their taxes.

“In New Jersey, by some estimates, 604,615 people, including 262,527 U.S. citizens, live with at least one undocumented family member and were left behind by public aid,” Morsy said.

To help undocumented immigrants who are in need, Make the Road NJ launched “Recovery 4 All,” a campaign to support excluded workers and their families in the state.

“We are all safer when everyone is included. No one should have to go to work sick just to be able to provide for themselves and their families,” Morsy added. “When everyone has access to [public] aid, our state will be safer, and we will survive the pandemic sooner.


Photo caption: Muzaffar Chishti, Director of the MPI office at New York University School of Law and Nedia Morsy, Director of Organizing at Make the Road NJ, speak with ethnic media reporters in the New Jersey/New York area about the COVID-19 impact on immigrants.

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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.