Republican governor ignites controversy around undocumented immigrant vaccinations

pete ricketts nebraska governor immigration vaccines
Photo via Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts has ignited controversy around immigration vaccines and whether an undocumented worker can receive them, even though many work in industries where the spread of coronavirus has been a particular concern. 

Ricketts, a Republican, was asked about undocumented workers during a Jan. 5 press conference where he briefed journalists on plans to deliver coronavirus vaccinations to meatpacking plants. 

“You’re supposed to be a legal resident of the country to be able to be working in those plants,” Ricketts said, via the Washington Post. “So I do not expect that illegal immigrants will be part of the vaccine with that program.”

The Omaha World-Herald’s reporting included an observation from Ricketts that “illegal immigrants are not allowed to work in the plants, so that would not be an issue.” 

The governor’s communications director, Taylor Gage, later clarified that “proof of citizenship is not required for vaccination.” He went on to note that “illegal immigrants are not allowed to work in meat processing facilities and therefore will not be receiving the vaccine in that context. Furthermore, while the federal government is expected to eventually make enough vaccine available for everyone in the country, Nebraska is going to prioritize citizens and legal residents ahead of illegal immigrants.”

He did not specify, however, how that prioritization would be implemented. 

The Washington Post noted that the immigration vaccines policy “still angered many advocates, who argue it could brew mistrust and scare immigrants away from an immunization campaign meant to reach as many people in Nebraska as possible.”

But the Post also contradicted Ricketts and Gage’s observations, that “hundreds of undocumented workers do in fact work in the crowded, high-risk facilities deemed essential to the nation’s food supply.” 

“This virus isn’t discriminating based on immigration status,” Dulce Castañeda, an organizer with the activist group Children of Smithfield, said. “It doesn’t ask people if they’re a citizen, if they’re a resident, if they’re on a visa. So why would we ask that for vaccines?”

Nebraska is the first state to put forth legal immigration status as a condition for immunization, though states are establishing their own criteria for the priority order for vaccines. 

CBS News interviewed U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams on Dec. 20, and he stated, “I want everyone to hear me. No one in this country should be denied a vaccine because of their documentation status, because it’s not ethically right to deny those individuals.” 

He added, “I want to reassure people that your information when collected to get your second shot, if you get the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, will not be used in any way, shape or form to harm you legally. That is something that I have been assured of. And we tell people that all the time when they need to come in for emergency care or public healthcare. So, we’re going to work with states and local officials and trusted organizations to make sure everyone gets the information they need and feels safe coming in to get vaccinated, because that’s how we end this pandemic. That’s the good news. There is a light at the end of this dark tunnel and we just need to keep running to it.” 

During the course of the pandemic, tens of thousands of meatpacking workers have been infected with the coronavirus with Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, and Minnesota having some of the highest numbers of COVID-19 cases in meatpacking facilities. 

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Sources: Washington Post, Omaha World-Herald, CBS News

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