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Fears Beyond the Vaccine

As the COVID-19 vaccine becomes readily available to more groups, populations- such as immigrants- are wary of receiving it due to not holding U.S. citizenship. Though, according to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), “... all individuals, regardless of immigration status, [can] receive the COVID-19 vaccine once eligible under local distribution guidelines.” In addition to the general fear held by the public about the new COVID-19 vaccines, many immigrants also feel at risk of deportation due to the identification information they must supply when receiving a vaccine. But the DHS addressed this concern as they stated, “Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Customs and Border Border Protection will not conduct enforcement operations at or near vaccine distribution sites or clinics.” The DHS makes it clear that they intend for every person to receive the vaccine, especially undocumented immigrants.


Though the COVID-19 vaccine intends to reach everyone, each U.S. state differs in its eligibility and material requirements. In Florida, for example, a person must display a valid Florida driver's license or a U.S. government-issued photo ID, a utility bill with a Florida address and the person’s name, or a rental agreement. Despite this wide array of options for identification, many immigrants still struggle to provide any of these. And this is an issue as most undocumented immigrants work in jobs at the highest risk of exposure to COVID-19. The Miami Herald stated, in Florida alone, there are “...775,000 undocumented immigrants and 150,000 to 200,000 migrant and seasonal farmworkers and their families,” most of whom do not hold long-term leases.


Florida farmworker and housekeeper Doris Mejia has been turned away from vaccine sites five times just within a month because she does not have a Florida ID. Mejia is originally from Salvador and currently lives in Homestead. A single mother with four children, she not only struggles to make enough money but is now tasked with the burden of overcoming vaccine disparities. Mejia also suffers from underlying heart issues rendering her even more vulnerable to experiencing severe symptoms of the virus.


In the Miami Herald, Mejia spoke that she felt that Florida did not “...want immigrants vaccinated…” as immigrants were seen “...as less, yet [they] work[ed] the most.” Mejia is just one of many immigrants turned down at vaccine sites due to a lack of identification or residency.


The federal government is committed to ensuring that undocumented immigrants have equal access to receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. However, due to the wide range of policies from state to state on vaccine requirements, many immigrants nationwide are experiencing disparities.


To address this issue, Democrats of Florida sent letters to Governor Ron DeSantis requesting that residency requirements of the vaccine be relaxed. Then, they wrote to the DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas asking that federally-supported vaccine sites end the specification of proof of residency and that Mayorkas should persuade Governor DeSantis to adjust the proof of residency requirements in the state of Florida.


Initially, Florida enforced proof of residency requirements for the COVID-19 vaccine due to the influx of foreigners going to Florida to receive the vaccine, an event known as “vaccine tourism.” But considering the substantial size of the undocumented immigrant workers in Florida, the proof of residency requirement for the vaccine is inhibiting a large, vulnerable population from receiving protection against COVID-19.


Changes at the federal level will take time to show tangible results at the state level. So immigrant advocates have resorted to other methods to overcome vaccine restrictions. The Guatemalan-Maya Center, a Florida non-profit that serves immigrants, agreed with the Palm Beach County Health Department to allow members of the Guatemalan-Maya Center to receive the vaccine by showing a statement on the group's official letterhead to prove their identity.


In the Miami Herald, Dr. Ranit Mishori, a senior adviser at Physicians for Human Rights and the coordinator for D.C. vaccine sites, explained that it is the responsibility of local and state administrations to make sure that vaccine guidelines are “...stated very clearly" and that "...the only thing that matters is [one's] eligibility and not [their] residency or citizenship status.”


Even if the DHS stated that individuals do not need citizenship to receive a vaccine at federal-run sites, undocumented immigrants' fear of deportation is not unjustifiable. Under the Trump Administration, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention made agreements with certain states allowing the collection of personal information on individuals who were vaccinated. Even after a switch in presidents, this event continues to deter undocumented immigrants away from vaccine sites.


For there to be equal access to the COVID-19 vaccine, all U.S. states must come together to standardize requirements and to emphasize the security of undocumented immigrants’ identification. Recovery from COVID-19 starts with enough people receiving the vaccination; with many undocumented immigrants in jobs where social distancing is difficult, they need to be included in the priority population to receive the vaccine. Even more so, they need to be reassured that choosing to protect themselves and others will not send them out of this country.


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