Gladys Arismendi is a fixture in the Orthodox Jewish community of West Orange. A familiar face and friend to many, for 23 years she has cleaned homes in West Orange and Livingston; she has worked for a popular local kosher caterer; and when she first arrived from Uruguay more than 20 years ago with her 2-year-old daughter, she also babysat for local families. Every Passover she has worked “like crazy” to make extra money — for unexpected expenses, to make ends meet, or to do something special during the summer.
She has paid her taxes from the start, using an Individual Tax Identification Number (ITIN), the system for undocumented immigrants, but was deemed ineligible to receive $1,200 from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) signed into law in March. And her husband, a natural-born United States citizen, was also denied the federal aid set aside for those who lost income as a result of the pandemic.
“The federal government has failed this population,” said Charlene Walker, executive director of Faith in New Jersey, a faith-based advocacy organization that focuses on racial, economic, and immigration justice issues.
She told NJJN that the CARES Act was passed after politicians had “surgically” removed the possibility of the aid going to immigrants. “Using the ITIN to pay taxes is the trigger” for denying payment, she said.
After receiving her Social Security number in 2019, the Jewish community helped Arismendi, 53, land a part-time job on the cleaning crew at Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob & David in West Orange (AABJ&D). Every Shabbat morning, she would arrive at 7 a.m. to set up kiddush for the early minyan, laying out a small spread of potato chips, pretzels, egg salad, and herring, and cleaning up when it was done. She’d also set up and clean up the congregational kiddush and would prepare for seudah shlishit (the third meal on Shabbat) before leaving the synagogue by 2 p.m.
After 23 years in the United States, she is finally on her way to citizenship, and formally started a cleaning and catering business after receiving legal residency.
When the Covid-19 lockdown began in March, Arismendi lost her synagogue paycheck and an estimated 60 percent of her house cleaning income (including the pre-Passover cleaning), plus all of the catering work. Her husband, Mike Cumberton, who does maintenance for the Synagogue of the Suburban Torah Center in Livingston and Congregation Ohr Torah in West Orange, lost about 50 percent of his income.
But neither of them was entitled to a payout. Arismendi was deemed ineligible because she filed her taxes with an ITIN. And Cumberton was denied because he and Arismendi have filed their taxes jointly since marrying in 2017.
“It’s like a punishment from the government to him,” said Arismendi of her husband, in a telephone conversation with NJJN. “It’s like, ‘Don’t help any immigrants because you’re going to pay the price.’”
According to the wording of the law, citizens married to undocumented immigrants who filed taxes separately are eligible for the $1,200; those who filed jointly are not. Had Cumberton filed separately, or if the couple had filed their 2019 tax returns using Arismendi’s new Social Security number before the CARES Act had passed, they would have received a check.
According to Sara Cullinane, director of Make the Road New Jersey, an advocacy organization for immigrant and working-class communities, there are approximately half a million undocumented immigrants in the state who did not receive aid under the CARES Act. Also, some 225,311 people in N.J. live in a household where undocumented immigrants filed taxes with an ITIN, including undocumented immigrants and their U.S. citizen spouses.
In response, Faith in New Jersey, formerly known as PICO New Jersey, set up a Covid relief fund to provide food and medicine to immigrants. Eventually they hope they can also provide funds for rent, but they are not able to yet, according to Walker. The organization is also advocating for the state government to set up a fund so those banned from receiving federal funds through the CARES Act can get state aid.
Arismendi, who moved from West Orange to Montclair in 2015, considers herself lucky. “Do you know how many people out there are without documents and without any kind of connection, who have nothing to eat and no money for medication?” she asked.
“I would never have made it without the help of the Jewish community,” she said, her voice catching. “They always were beside me. Always. Anything I needed, I knew I could talk to people,” she said, adding, “I have no family here, but I know I can count on them. I am not Jewish, but these are my people. They have my back.”
Even her daughter, Paula, was helped. When Paula was old enough to work she got a job in the Kids Club at the JCC MetroWest in West Orange, earning money for clothes and books, while Arismendi put her through Montclair State University. Now 25, Paula is the grade school administrator for Kids Club.
But the family’s worries aren’t over. Paula is a DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipient and could face deportation if the U.S. Supreme Court doesn’t uphold the lawfulness of the program in a case expected to be decided before the end of this month.
Faith in New Jersey has been lobbying politicians to have immigrants included in the next stimulus package, known as the Heroes Act, specifically to extend payments to those filing tax returns using an ITIN, as well as for their spouses who file jointly. The House of Representatives passed the bill on May 15. New Jersey’s congressional representatives voted along party lines, with 10 Democratic representatives in favor of the Heroes Act and two Republican representatives opposed.
The bill was on the calendar for discussion in the Senate beginning June 1, but according to reports, the Heroes Act will not pass in its current form, and a vote is unlikely before July.
New Jersey’s two senators, Robert Menendez and Corey Booker, both Democrats, support the legislation. “The Covid-19 pandemic does not discriminate based on immigration status, and neither should the national relief response,” Menendez told NJJN in a statement prior to the bill’s arrival in the Senate. “All individuals who file taxes in the United States, including U.S. citizen spouses and children who live in mixed-status households, should be eligible for cash payments to help ensure that families are able to afford shelter and food during this crisis.”
Walker told NJJN she is not confident the correction will stand. “We are worried [the provisions designed to help immigrants] will be ripped out on the Senate side,” she said.
Rabbi Joel Abraham of Temple Sholom in Scotch Plains, who sits on Faith in New Jersey’s board of directors, believes a Jew’s responsibility extends beyond the Jewish community. To emphasize the proper treatment of non-citizens, he quoted Exodus 12:49, which reads, “There shall be one law for the citizen and for the stranger who dwells among you.”
“Judaism not only teaches us that we are responsible for the world around us,” he wrote in an email to NJJN, “but we are specifically commanded to treat those in our community who are not citizens as we would treat any citizen.”