Updated Jan. 7, 2020, at 8:21 p.m.
Immigrants across Massachusetts have resisted getting the COVID-19 vaccine out of fear of deportation or others legal consequences, according to lawyers, activists and community leaders.
“We have been fielding phone calls from individuals who are concerned that they will be deported if they get a vaccine,” Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, of Lawyers for Civil Rights, told GBH News. “We have been advising individuals and families that they absolutely must make themselves available for testing and vaccination and that these activities will not trigger immigration consequences, but the harm has already been done. The misconceptions exist.”
It would be illegal for medical officials to share information with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But such concerns are still likely to hurt a public vaccination campaign, Espinoza-Madrigal says, which could compromise the wider population’s ability to reach herd immunity.
“(It's) not because immigrants are trying to be difficult but because the Trump administration has created such tremendous fear and insecurity in immigrant communities that the trust has been broken,” Espinoza-Madrigal said. “It's going to take a significant effort from public health officials and local governments to fill that trust gap so that immigrants can come forth for vaccination.”
In January of last year, the Supreme Court ruled that the Trump administration could enact a “public charge” rule against documented immigrants who use federal resources, allowing the government to block their applications for permanent residency, also known as a green card. That's caused many immigrants to resist accepting CARES Act benefits or signing up for federally-funded COVID-19 tests or vaccines, according to Amy Grunder, director of legislative affairs at the MIRA Coalition.
“People are afraid,” Grunder told GBH News. “They think that if there's some possibility of securing a path to citizenship, they don't want this to get in the way.”
Last February, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services excluded COVID-19 testing and treatment from the public charge rule, encouraging "all those, including aliens, with symptoms that resemble coronavirus ... to seek necessary medical treatment or preventive services."
"Such treatment or preventive services will not negatively affect any alien as part of a future public charge analysis," the update reads.
Immigrants served by the MIRA coalition have also expressed fears that information shared at a vaccination site may be leaked to ICE and may lead to a deportation, even though medical privacy laws would prevent such information sharing, Grunder said.
“Over the last four years, immigrants have had a justifiable fear that any interaction with federal officials, particularly ICE, could be a disaster for themselves and their families,” Grunder said. “Because of that, because of fears of family separation, they become unwilling to seek access to other kinds of institutions as well as well; people are afraid to contact law enforcement, people are afraid to go to court for a restraining order, people are afraid to get care in hospitals and people are afraid to get other kinds of of medical assistance as well.”
Ensuring that undocumented immigrants feel safe in getting vaccinated will significantly slow the spread of the virus, according to Helena DaSilva Hughes, the executive director at the Immigrants Assistance Center, which serves a population of roughly 12,000 immigrants per year in New Bedford.
“It has to be free, simple and no questions asked,” DaSilva Hughes told GBH News. “It also has to be members of their community who they trust. They have to take the vaccine and show that it’s safe.”
Dasilva Hughes says many immigrants, particularly those who work in the city’s more than 45 fish “houses,” factories and processing centers, were reluctant to get tested for COVID-19 until Gov. Charlie Baker implemented the Stop the Spread testing sites.
“Stop the Spread worked quite beautifully in New England because it was free and no questions asked,” DaSilva Hughes said. “We saw a lot of testing being done, and what I am hoping is that the same system used for Stop the Spread will be utilized when the vaccine gets here for the general population.”
Since the beginning of the pandemic, DaSilva Hughes has been on an information-sharing campaign — hosting a local community-access television show in Portuguese, working with local religious and community leaders to quell misinformation regarding testing and the vaccine and communicating with her own clients the importance of utilizing federal resources.
“We know that there's a lack of trust within the immigrant population. They don't trust too many people,” DaSilva Hughes said. “We know that they trust the churches and they trust us, because we've been around for 50 years and we provide services to them. We represent them, we look like them and they trust us, which is very important.”
DaSilva Hughes said she was skeptical about the vaccine at one point herself — until she heard a doctor from the community explain what the vaccine was and how it worked.
“By the time he finished explaining in the program about the vaccine, I was ready to take it," she said. "It depends who's giving the message. We, as the leaders of the community, need to show that we trust it and so it’s okay for them to trust it, too.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the public rule charge could determine that undocumented immigrants are ineligible for citizenship. The public rule charge only affects permanent residency, also known as a green card. The article also stated that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services suspended the public charge rule last February. The federal government did not suspend the entire public charge rule but excluded COVID-19 testing and treatment it. GBH News regrets these errors.