The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), under the new leadership of Alejandro Mayorkas, released a statement on February 1st encouraging all immigrants to receive the COVID-19 vaccine regardless of their immigration status. The agency called it a “moral and public health imperative” that undocumented immigrants have access to the vaccine and even promised that no immigration enforcement operations will take place at or near vaccination sites. The undocumented immigrant community however, is not so easily convinced.
After four years of largely adversarial action towards the immigrant community under the Trump administration, undocumented immigrants fear having to provide their personal information in order to receive the vaccine. While vaccine providers will not ask for proof of citizenship or legal residency, the thought of revealing their name, age, and home address frightens immigrants who believe they could be tracked down or targeted in the future for their undocumented status.
Changes made under the Trump administration to the “Public Charge” rule have also fostered reluctance among the undocumented community to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. This long-established rule is meant to prevent individuals who are at risk of becoming a public charge (being too dependent on government assistance) from obtaining legal status in the U.S. The Trump administration expanded the rule, considering previously excluded programs like non-emergency Medicaid in deciding if an immigrant would become a public charge. Despite reassurance from DHS and state and local governments, the undocumented community fears that receiving the vaccine may be considered a form of public assistance and therefore used against them in potential future immigration proceedings.
It is problematic that receiving the vaccine is met with so much reluctance by undocumented immigrants because many are considered essential workers and therefore at greater risk of both being infected with and transmitting coronavirus. For example, 22% of all food production workers are undocumented immigrants. Low vaccination rates among this population will threaten the entire country’s ability to emerge from the pandemic.
Experts cite trusted local agencies and community leaders as potential alleviation to undocumented immigrants’ fear of receiving the vaccine. They argue that spreading credible information about the implications of vaccination at the local level will be received with greater confidence than statements from the federal government that was until just recently so notably anti-immigrant. The coronavirus pandemic has already revealed how integral the undocumented community is to the nation’s essential workforce. Now, it reveals the importance of ensuring that this population feels safe enough to get vaccinated.
Written by Alexandra Ciullo, Legal Intern