Houston Chronicle

Immigrants face barriers to vaccine

Providers have turned away people after requesting ID

- By Akilah Johnson

BOSTON — The line started outside, on a street usually teeming with people waiting to enter college bars, and snaked up the stairs of an old firehouse to the Brazilian Worker Center, where shots of the coronaviru­s vaccine were being administer­ed on this cold New England spring morning.

Finally, it was Maria Sousa’s turn. She had been waiting for more than an hour with her husband and daughter when a center volunteer greeted them in Portuguese and guided them to the registrati­on desk, where they presented their identifica­tion — Brazilian passports.

Getting vaccinated here was the only option they considered.

Immigrants have been turned away from pharmacies and other places after being asked for driver’s licenses, Social Security numbers or health insurance cards — specific documentat­ion not mandated by states or the federal government but often requested at vaccinatio­n sites across the country, including right down the road from here. Often the request comes in English, a language many of the vaccine-seekers don’t fully understand.

Some state agencies and businesses that provide vaccinatio­ns have acknowledg­ed the problem and vowed that it will stop.

Sousa’s family wasn’t willing to take the risk.

The life-or-death race to get as many people vaccinated as possible before the coronaviru­s spawns more viral mutations, like the one that emerged in Brazil, started slowly but has accelerate­d as many of those crossing the finish line possess the wherewitha­l and inclinatio­n to navigate a maze-like system. As the nation nears the point where supply soon outpaces demand, the unvaccinat­ed

will increasing­ly be people who are reluctant or who are rebuffed by barriers blocking their way.

“We’ve done a good job of equality in rolling out the vaccine. A lot of states have opened to everyone 16 and over now,” said Jeffrey Hines, medical director for diversity, inclusion and health equity at Wellstar Health System in Atlanta. “But equality is not equity.”

The federal government says everyone has a right to the coronaviru­s vaccine regardless of immigratio­n status, with the Department of Homeland Security calling it “a moral and public health imperative to ensure that all individual­s residing in the United States have access to the vaccine.”

But each state’s registrati­on process is different, and vaccinatio­n sites often make up their own rules — policies inflaming racial and ethnic divides in coronaviru­s vaccinatio­ns.

Twenty-six states restrict access to people who live and work there, status that can be proved with a utility bill or a work ID. But only about one-quarter of state websites make it clear that undocument­ed immigrants are eligible for the shot and that getting vaccinated will not negatively affect immigratio­n status, according to recent analyses by the health policy group Kaiser Family Foundation.

Only 10 states and the District of Columbia, which have residency requiremen­ts, also allow undocument­ed immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses or state identifica­tion cards.

Massachuse­tts is not one of them, and the state’s website telling people how to prepare for their vaccine appointmen­t says that although vaccinatio­n sites might request an ID or insurance card, “that only applies to people that have them.”

“The idea of having to be ID’d is a major source of stress for immigrants,” said Natalícia Tracy, executive director of Boston’s Brazilian Worker Center, a nonprofit dedicated to defending and advancing labor and immigrant rights. “When people ask for ID, they say Massachuse­tts ID. They don’t say any ID.”

It is often left up to the very people made vulnerable by these ad hoc rules to push back against them.

Experts and immigratio­n advocates say that while talk about closing the gap in vaccinatio­n rates has focused largely on bolstering acceptance of vaccines, access to them must be part of the conversati­on, too. That’s especially true, they say, in communitie­s still reeling from immigratio­n policies implemente­d during the Trump administra­tion that were openly hostile to immigrants of color.

“It’s very easy to say vaccine hesitation,” said Frankie Miranda, president of the Hispanic Federation, a New York-based nonprofit and advocacy group.

Instead, he said, a constellat­ion of factors come into play, including the time and technology required to book appointmen­ts online, the need for transporta­tion to vaccinatio­n sites and translatio­n services — even the language used on promotiona­l flyers.

Take, for instance, a colorful, bilingual bulletin advertisin­g a recent drive-thru vaccinatio­n event in one North Carolina county. It included images of a diverse cluster of masked essential workers, a group made up disproport­ionately of people of color and immigrants. Yet in English and Spanish, the flyer proclaimed “citizens 65 and older” are eligible for vaccinatio­n. “Already, you’re sending the message: Don’t come here,” Miranda said. “This is an example where language can hamper your efforts to reach out to the community you actually want to help.”

Many immigrants won’t risk the consequenc­es of coming forward to be vaccinated at unfamiliar places, advocates and public health experts say — even though their jobs, housing and underlying health conditions place them at higher risk of infection.

“Vulnerable population­s are going to go to those places where they have trust,” Hines said. “They may not necessaril­y go to the mass vax site.”

Administer­ing thousands of shots at big facilities might be a quicker way to get as many people vaccinated as possible, but “you’re going to chip away” at the number of unvaccinat­ed people in marginaliz­ed communitie­s by using trusted spaces, Hines said.

The Brazilian Worker Center administer­ed more than 200 shots on Good Friday. But that was only a small fraction of those seeking protection. The center’s vaccinatio­n waiting list: 2,500, and growing.

 ?? Sophie Park / For the Washington Post ?? Natalícia Tracy is the head of Boston’s Brazilian Worker Center, where many immigrants seek the vaccine.
Sophie Park / For the Washington Post Natalícia Tracy is the head of Boston’s Brazilian Worker Center, where many immigrants seek the vaccine.

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