Nebraska governor wrong on immigrant vaccinations
Last Monday, comments by Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts went viral for all the wrong reasons. At a briefing announcing plans to deliver coronavirus vaccines to meatpacking plants, Ricketts was asked if undocumented workers would be included. “You’re supposed to be a legal resident of the country to be able to be working in those plants,” he said. “So I do not expect that illegal immigrants will be part of the vaccine with that program.” His remarks drew a storm of criticism, so his communications director later offered a clarification: Immigrants in Nebraska will get the vaccine, but the state is going to prioritize citizens and legal residents before those without legal status.
Nebraska’s position on the COVID-19 vaccine sends the wrong message.
Suggesting that undocumented immigrants are less deserving of the vaccine than others is as offensive as it is irresponsible. Basing vaccine priorities on immigration status would be bad public policy, a logistical nightmare, and an insult to the essential workers helping keep food on our shelves and tables.
While the federal government has largely left the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines to the states, the Washington Post notes that Nebraska is so far the only state to have “publicly suggested it will consider legal status in its immunization campaign — a move that even federal officials have warned could be dangerous.”
Sadly, Gov. Ricketts fails to grasp that a successful vaccination campaign should be as expansive and inclusive as possible. Adding immigration status to the factors for vaccine distribution will do nothing but erect another bureaucratic hurdle to an already-complex process. And neither Ricketts nor his spokesperson has explained how, exactly, they plan to check people’s immigration status, a process that would likely open the door for racial profiling as well as legal challenges.
According to the Migration Policy Institute, immigrants make up 66 percent of Nebraska’s meat processing workers. Although these workers put in long hours in close quarters, Ricketts does not seem to value their lives equally. That is shameful, because this is not a matter of politics; this is a matter of public health.
In 2016, the Pew Center estimated that there were 60,000 undocumented immigrants in Nebraska, comprising 3 percent of the state’s population. Tens of thousands of U.S. citizens in the state live with at least one undocumented family member. If members of these households fear they are going to be singled out because of their immigration status, they may hesitate to come forward and get vaccinated, which will endanger their lives and the lives of their fellow Nebraskans. There’s already been solid regional and national reporting on the fears that undocumented people have about receiving the vaccine.
Contrary to Ricketts’ plan to prioritize citizens and legal residents, all workers at Nebraska’s meatpacking plants should be prioritized for COVID-19 vaccination. These plants, ordered by President Trump to stay open so as not to disrupt the nation’s food supply, have been hot spots for the deadly virus. Last year, meatpacking workers accounted for nearly one in six coronavirus cases in the state. Data compiled by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting shows that Nebraska has the highest number of COVID-19 cases originating from meatpacking plants, with outbreaks at 23 facilities, at least 5,200 workers infected, and 22 dead.
Gov. Ricketts might think his anti-immigrant stance will be popular in a red state. That remains to be seen. But consider the array of voices expressing support for vaccinating people regardless of citizenship. A leading Latino advocacy group, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) warned Ricketts about risking lives for the sake of political points. In December, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that “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.” Even a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a conservative group that favors lower immigration levels, has stated that “Public health experts should determine who should be prioritized for the vaccine.” The fact that Gov. Ricketts is such an outlier on this issue is a reason for him to rethink his position.
Gov. Ricketts’ vaccination strategy is deeply flawed. The coronavirus does not discriminate based on citizenship, legal status, or unlawful presence — and neither should he.
Raul A. Reyes is an immigration attorney and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors. A graduate of Harvard University and Columbia Law School, he is also a contributor to NBCNews.com and CNN Opinion. You can follow him on Twitter at @RaulAReyes, Instagram: raulareyes1.