Gathered within the chambers of Camden City Hall, the state's recently formed Commission on Puerto Rico Relief addressed concerns of South Jersey residents about the slow progress of the island's restoration and the influx of up to 30,000 evacuees into the Garden State in need of support.
Monday's meeting was the last of three across the state for the 18-member commission, created last month by Gov. Murphy to assist those who arrived in New Jersey from Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria and to help those who remain there.
A news release from Murphy's office said, "It is unacceptable that five months after Hurricane Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico, so many of our fellow Americans are still feeling the impacts of the storm."
The aim is to work with state agencies to "fast-track" help for displaced Puerto Ricans, and the release calls the federal response "insufficient."
Efforts to rebuild Puerto Rico have been excruciatingly slow, as power has not yet been fully restored and concerns about water quality persist.
Pastor Joshua Rodriguez of Jersey City, chairman of the commission, said his 80-year-old mother, who lives in Puerto Rico, got her power back just a few days ago after losing it when Maria first hit in early September.
"We're four months away from the next hurricane season, who knows what that's going to bring. They're still living in horrible conditions," he said.
Camden City Councilman Angel Fuentes said he was frustrated that Puerto Ricans are still being treated as second-class citizens, saying, "We are not undocumented."
Many Puerto Ricans in New Jersey are facing problems with finding jobs because of licensing issues — they are required to repeat training programs even if they worked in a field for 20 years.
A "bill on reciprocity" has been introduced by the legislature and the commission is pushing for it to be passed. It will clarify the law "so that Puerto Rico becomes just like the other 50 states," said Sam Delgado, a member of the commission.
Educators from South Jersey expressed their concerns with the recent influx of students from Puerto Rico into local school systems, saying that there is a need for more teachers, particularly those who are bilingual.
But teachers certified in Puerto Rico face similar issues, meaning that they have to go through the recertification process in New Jersey, including taking exams no matter how long they were certified back home.
Delgado said there is no legislation proposed to help ease the recertification process for teachers from Puerto Rico, and the legislation is only aimed at professional licenses such as hair stylist.
To ease the integration process, the commission has asked Murphy and his administration to enter New Jersey into a host-state agreement with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, similar to Florida, which approves full federal reimbursement for costs incurred by Florida while accommodating refugees.
Doing so would ease employment and educational transitions, issues involving housing, and other problems New Jersey is struggling to tackle.
Members of the commission encouraged evacuees to immediately register with FEMA and to call 211 regarding any issues they face or questions they may have.
Parsippany Mayor Michael Soriano said regardless of whether one has friends or family in need on the island, Puerto Ricans are still U.S. citizens in need.