BALTIMORE — Irma Delrosaria, 68, was amazed and grateful that her friends were able to get vaccinated in a few minutes at their church in a Baltimore neighborhood hit hard by COVID-19, where many residents are Latin American immigrants living here illegally.
“I had to go all the way downtown and wait two hours in the cold. It was an ordeal,” said Delrosaria, a legal immigrant who moved from Guatemala three years ago. On a recent day, she waited outside as friends were getting their shots at the Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish. They said they were happy to be vaccinated in a convenient spot—especially among people they trust.
Some cities such as Chicago and states including Maryland and California are enlisting churches and community groups to help vaccinate immigrants. Churches and community groups can approve appointments for people they know are qualified, making the process less intimidating for some immigrants.
State and local governments hope these collaborations will help them better reach workers often classified as essential, working on farms and in restaurants and meat-processing plants. They have suffered disproportionately from the pandemic, since their work requires close contact with other people, according to a National Institutes of Health study last year.
Those living here illegally face special challenges with paperwork, since they often live in the shadows with no paper trail. Many of them lack the formal identification or utility bills required by many states to receive vaccines. Some states, such as North Carolina and West Virginia, have denied vaccines to people without proof of state residence.
“Some of our people are working under different names—they might have a home name and a different work name for different jobs,” said Oscar Londoño, director of WeCount!, which represents immigrant workers in Florida’s Miami-Dade County. “And how are you going to show proof of residency when you have 10 people sharing a place and there’s one name on the lease?”
Nebraska Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts said in January that his state would “prioritize” legal residents for vaccination, and Republican lawmakers in Arizona, South Carolina and Louisiana made similar remarks.
But given the public health crisis, the drive to vaccinate the roughly 10.5 million people who are living in the country without documentation has not been bogged down by the usual arguments over illegal immigration.
The Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that favors tighter immigration restrictions, editorialized in favor of vaccinating those living here illegally, and even suggested going abroad to vaccinate migrants before they get to the United States.
“I think we should, for once, ignore the migration status variable,” David North, a fellow at the center, wrote in November. “I think this makes the most sense for society as a whole and it also carries wonderful byproduct—it is easy.”
Maryland, taking a cue from California, is experimenting with small vaccination events at trusted places such as churches and enlisting the help of community organizations catering to immigrants. The state already had dropped documentation requirements at its mass vaccination sites, partly to avoid discouraging immigrants, though that generated complaints from some lawmakers that the change could encourage cheating by others on age and job requirements.
“This community has been decimated by the pandemic. We want people to get through the red tape,” said Bishop Bruce Lewandowski, an auxiliary bishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore. The Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish, where vaccinations are taking place, is in one of Baltimore’s hardest-hit ZIP codes, a mostly Hispanic neighborhood where as many as 48% of COVID-19 tests were positive at one point.
Genell Collins, a community organizer who supervises charitable food distribution in the area, said before the vaccines were offered at churches, residents “had to take two or three buses and expose themselves to all those people to get to a vaccination site. The inequity is just terrible.”
Lewandowski added that vaccinating in a church setting may help dispel misinformation that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines contain fetal tissue from abortions. In reality, the testing for those vaccines involved using a cell line derived from fetal tissue decades ago that is commonly used in vaccine research. A different but similar cell line was used in vaccine design and development in the new Johnson & Johnson one-dose vaccine.
The Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention have both advised that such vaccines are acceptable when there’s no alternative. Some members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called on Catholics to choose the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine if they can.
California announced plans this month to set aside 40% of vaccine doses for poorer ZIP codes that have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19, but have had fewer residents vaccinated than in wealthier areas. The goal is an additional 2 million doses by mid-March in those areas.
Vaccine distribution has been a bumpy road in the Golden State, which pioneered a system that uses group vaccine access codes—provided to a thousand community groups—to ensure equity for the most vulnerable low-income and minority communities. The system was halted in February, however, after codes were widely circulated via e-mail and outsiders used them, sometimes not knowing the codes were meant for others. The state is moving toward individualized codes that organizations can assign to specific people.
South of Miami, an area where farmers produce an outsized share of the nation’s nursery plants and vegetables, migrant farmworkers are still waiting for vaccines. Florida, along with Texas, has yet to follow guidelines issued by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in December suggesting food and agricultural workers be vaccinated early along with other essential workers. Michigan, where apples and other crops are harvested by migrant workers, began vaccinating those workers last month.
Even in cases where Florida immigrants qualify for vaccination because they’re older or work in nursing homes, some have been turned away for lack of formal identification, said Londoño of WeCount!.
Even more are discouraged once they hear about identification requirements and internet sign-ups for vaccines, and don’t book appointments at all, Londoño said.
Florida now requires proof of residency, after stories came to light of out-of-state vaccine tourists traveling to the Sunshine State. When vaccinations for farm workers start later this year, Londoño advocates for the workers to receive shots as they arrive for their shifts.
As vaccination progresses to include more people, including immigrants in other jobs, some advocates fear the disparities will only grow.
“This is going to be a bigger problem as it opens up to more people,” said Adonia Simpson, an attorney who works with immigrants at the Americans for Immigrant Justice legal clinic in Miami. “Just the fact that they’re asking for state-issued identification is going to discourage people from getting appointments, if they think they’re going to be turned away.”
However, as restrictions ease, identification requirements may also relax because there won’t be as much need to verify eligibility, said Colin Milligan, a spokesperson for the American Hospital Association, a trade group.
“States vary in what they are asking vaccinators to ensure about eligibility,” Milligan said. “For now, with limited supply, states want to ensure that the vaccine they receive is going to somebody who meets the guidance. When everyone is eligible, things might change.”