OPINION: We Must Think About Vaccine Trust From the Perspectives of Undocumented Migrants

Apr 29, 2021
1:44 PM

(AP Photo / Carlos Giusti)

COVID-19 and its variants do not care if you are with or without papers. They do not acknowledge nation-states and legal status. They are borderless. And like all social and biological diseases, they thrive on misinformation and ignorance that are are highly contagious, just like COVID-19 itself.

According to the Department of Homeland Security, undocumented immigrants are eligible and encouraged to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. On February 1, DHS put out a statement claiming that it supports equal access of the vaccine regardless of immigration status. They added that “U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection will not conduct enforcement operations at or near vaccine distribution sites or clinics.” However, reports across the country show that Latinx communities (including undocumented people) remain one of the lowest in vaccination rates. According to the CDC, only 11% of Latinx people in the U.S. have been vaccinated. This percentage is much lower for undocumented migrants, who are being turned away at pharmacies and vaccination centers for not having proper forms of identification. Such denials to the vaccine run counter to the federally mandated vaccination protocol.

For many more undocumented people, a statement from DHS will not erase the haunting memory and trauma of targeted deportations. During the previous administration, ICE had access to databases containing detailed information about DACA recipients. What is stopping this from happening again once the COVID crisis is under control? Will immigration authorities use COVID vaccine information to target undocumented migrants in the future? These are some of the concerns coming from the undocumented people. In order to vaccinate this at-risk demographic, we must build real trust between the U.S. government and undocumented people.

We must also think about trust from the perspective of undocumented migrants. Misinformation and historical trauma make it less likely for undocumented communities and families in mixed-status households to trust the vaccine and any record-keeping around it. There is already the fear of being apprehended, deported, and separated from their families. Vaccination data collection doesn’t help. The FDA-authorized dosing for Pfizer and Madermana respectively recommends two doses with a 21- and a 28-day interval between the first and second dose. Johnson and Johnson’s single-dose vaccine present a unique opportunity to vaccinate undocumented people on a one dose and no questions asked basis, if that is what is always happening.

The truth is that protecting undocumented people from severe COVID-19 infection does not guarantee protection from ICE and deportation. And we know this. Historically, access to medical care, like access to social security, has been bounded up in the rhetoric of legal status. If undocumented people are to trust the vaccine rollout, we need to address the larger problem of distrust among our communities.

Earlier this year, as millions of doses are put into the arms of Americans, many struggled to find their place in the vaccine-rollout queue. The CDC recommended that Phase 1c should include all essential workers; among these are “workers in transportation and logistics, water and wastewater, food service, shelter and housing (e.g., construction).” A study conducted by FWD.us shows that “undocumented immigrants are one of the largest groups among the immigrant essential workforce, making up 5.2 million essential workers, of which nearly 1 million are Dreamers.”

Essential workers were, and still are, clearly at risk because their jobs require social mobility and human contact. Any comprehensive vaccination rollout of essential workers should have accounted for such a significant portion of this labor force. However, as more vaccines are being administered, political resistance to undocumented essential workers getting the vaccine emerged in the political arena.

In January, Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts proposed that undocumented immigrants who work in meatpacking facilities would not qualify to receive COVID-19 vaccines. Ricketts said at a press conference, “You’re supposed to be a legal resident of the country to be able to be working in those plants… So I do not expect that illegal immigrants will be part of the vaccine with that program.”

Leaders in the Republican party advocating for an America first agenda, including Republican Congresswoman Debbie Lesko of Arizona and Congressman Jeff Duncan of South Carolina, also joined the chorus of anti-immigrant sentiment that disqualified and underqualified undocumented migrant from getting the vaccine despite of their high risk of infection. We have seen what happens when we politicize a virus, and we should be careful not to politicize the vaccine.

Our cultural fixation on the migrant, which is in part the politicization of human mobility, requires an epistemic shift if we are to combat COVID-19 and future pandemics. The COVID-19 pandemic demands that we consider our vaccination approach from the perspective of the migrant. It is from the perspective of social mobility that we will get ahead of a virus that moves with and among people at increasing speeds. The negating rhetoric of undocumented and non-status will stifle our efforts. This rhetoric should have no place in the realm of science. Such political and economic rhetoric helps politicians get elected and insurance companies get rich. But it does not protect your elderly mother in the nursing home, or your partner who teaches high school students in person, or your daughter in college.

Vaccine rollout should not be an immigration issue, but a medical priority. For undocumented immigrants with underlying health conditions, the possibility of deportation exacerbates their physical and mental health, making these individuals even more defenseless against a virus that is ravaging their workplace, neighborhoods, and homes. According to Heide Castañeda, the stress of possible deportation and separation from family members directly affects the psychological and biological health of undocumented immigrants. Castañeda argues, “Hostile policy environments result in intense feelings of anxiety, fear, and depression, which exacerbate preexisting health conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes.” Even though the CDC prioritizes those with underlying medical conditions, we could be doing more to include undocumented immigrants in this conversation.

Depoliticizing the vaccine means creating trust and solidarity with undocumented people. We can accomplish this by replacing the rhetoric of anti-immigration with the rhetoric of cure, health, and solidarity. Health Affairs rightfully suggests that in addition to providing vaccines free of charge, “Distribution of the vaccine to these communities must be undertaken with provisions guaranteeing that their records are not released to governmental agencies, putting them at risk for deportation and denial of public services.” We can also practice solidarity by understanding our privilege. Our safety does not equal the safety of others, and just because we are vaccinated doesn’t mean everyone is. Thus, we should continue wearing face masks even after receiving our vaccines to protect those without the antibodies.

The previous administration was founded on the myth of undocumented immigrants being “rapists, and criminals.” In the last four years, more borders were created between migrants and U.S. government in the form of a U.S.-Mexico border wall and the attempt to dismantle DACA. Little was done to bridge gaps and build trust between undocumented people and the U.S. government. The death toll reached over 400,000 when Trump boarded Air Force One for his Mar-a-Lago home. How many of the dead were undocumented immigrants? Is this figure even attainable? Undocumented immigrants are working to keep Americans safe, fed, and healthy; we need to do the same for them if we hope to recover the economic and social health of our country.


Ayendy Bonifacio is an assistant professor of U.S. ethnic literary studies the University of Toledo and the author of To the River, We Are Migrants. Twitter: @AyendyBonifacio.