Undocumented U.S. residents are among those hardest hit by COVID-19, and experts and activists are increasingly concerned that vaccines won’t reach their communities.
Many experts warn of a public health disaster, citing lack of accessibility, fear of deportation and general wariness, unless a strategy is put in place to communicate with hard-to-reach communities and allow them the opportunity to get vaccinated without risks to them or their families.
“The undocumented community has really been disproportionately affected by everything that’s happening with the pandemic,” said Adonia Simpson, director of the Family Defense Program at the Miami-based immigrant-rights group Americans for Immigrant Justice.
Hostility toward immigrants by the Trump administration and some lawmakers, as well as fear of possible information sharing with immigration officials, has forced some immigrants underground, even though undocumented immigrants are among those most vulnerable to the coronavirus, Simpson added.
Fear And Distrust
Many members of the undocumented community wonder if their status will be a hindrance to receiving the vaccine, or if they’ll be vaccinated at all.
In December, New York Gov. Anderew Cuomo (D) successfully lobbied the federal government not to collect personal data as a prerequisite for receiving the vaccine. That quelled the concerns of the state’s nearly 1 million undocumented immigrants who were concerned their status could fall into the hands of federal immigration authorities.
“The communities hit hardest by COVID can’t be the last to get a vaccine,” Cuomo said after sending a letter to U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. “It would be unfair and discriminatory.”
But in Nebraska, the sentiment isn’t the same. Earlier this month, Gov. Pete Ricketts was widely criticized by immigration advocates after he announced that “legal citizens” would be prioritized for the vaccine and undocumented workers would have to wait.
Nearly 11 million undocumented immigrants reside in the U.S., with hundreds of thousands of them working in essential services, including the food, retail and construction industries.
Although no other state appears to have publicly suggested it will consider legal status in its immunization campaign, Nebraska’s plan has heightened fears among undocumented communities across the country.
“That type of information spreads really quickly and snowballs, so I do anticipate when vaccines become available to individuals that there’s going to be a continued concern about how this could impact their immigration cases or if their information will be shared or even if they’ll be eligible to get the vaccine,” Simpson said.
Advocates are now looking to the Biden administration ― which this week plans to announce an overhaul to the nation’s immigration laws and a pathway to citizenship ― to earn the trust of undocumented immigrants as a part of his promise to vaccinate 100 million people a day during his first 100 days.
It is no surprise that millions of undocumented residents are anxious. Almost a year ago, in February 2020, Trump expanded the scope of the “public charge rule”― a seldom-used policy in place since the 1880s that allows the federal government to deny entry to immigrants, especially green card holders, who are deemed to be overly reliant on public benefits, such cash assistance programs.
After the change in the public charge rule, immigrants have become hesitant to utilize lifesaving services during the pandemic, such as Medicaid, federal housing, and food aid, for fear of jeopardizing their chances for a green card and citizenship. Simpson noted that some families are not seeking medical services or local assistance for fear of being deported or denied a chance at residency.
“The purpose of this rule was really to create confusion and fear, which it was very successful doing,” said Simpson.
“It’s just so critically important to keep everybody in mind. This is not a time to be distinguishing between individuals who are documented and undocumented.”
A wide array of advocacy organizations have been working to combat disinformation with answers about the Trump rule.
“There’s been a lot of mistrust in the government surrounding immigration, so the messaging is just going to have to come from trusted entities on the ground that are working with immigrant communities,” said Simpson.
But there still is skepticism. Advocates like Simpson said it is critical for lawmakers and medical professionals to provide clear messaging in various languages to reach undocumented communities and ensure that the vaccine is accessible to them.
“It’s just so critically important to keep everybody in mind,” Simpson said. “This is not a time to be distinguishing between individuals who are documented and undocumented. This is a health emergency, which immigration status should play be no factor in this at all.”
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