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DHS says undocumented immigrants should get coronavirus vaccines

Posted February 1, 2021 7:08 p.m. EST

— Undocumented immigrants should get coronavirus vaccines, the Biden administration said Monday, adding that federal authorities won't conduct immigration enforcement operations at vaccine distribution sites or clinics.

"It is a moral and public health imperative to ensure that all individuals residing in the United States have access to the vaccine. DHS encourages all individuals, regardless of immigration status, to receive the COVID-19 vaccine once eligible under local distribution guidelines," the Department of Homeland Security said.

The statement from the department that oversees the nation's immigration enforcement marks a significant shift in tone from official declarations made during the Trump administration. It's the first time the department has encouraged undocumented immigrants to get vaccinated against coronavirus or discussed its immigration enforcement posture around vaccinations.

Many undocumented immigrants live in communities that have already been hit disproportionately by the coronavirus, but advocates have warned that widespread fear could stop many people from getting vaccinated.

"I'm very, very concerned," Dr. Ranit Mishori, senior medical advisor for Physicians for Human Rights, told CNN in December. "If we are as a country to achieve herd immunity, that means non-citizens who live among us have to be immunized."

Advocates say some immigrants are skeptical of any government-led vaccination efforts after years of being targeted during the Trump administration, and some more recent comments from leaders have also given them pause:

• In an interview last year with CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said the vaccine would be free "for all American citizens." Pfizer later told CNN the CEO had been referring to government statements on the topic.

• In a briefing last month, Nebraska's governor implied coronavirus vaccines wouldn't be available for undocumented immigrants in his state, though he walked back the comments days later. A video of Gov. Pete Ricketts' remarks went viral on Twitter and provoked sharp criticism.

• And new guidelines in Florida requiring those getting vaccinated to prove residency in the state have also sparked concern among immigrant advocates. They fear that such rules, purportedly designed to cut down on "vaccine tourism," may block farmworkers and other essential workers from getting the vaccine.

When asked about the issue on multiple occasions, the Biden administration has said that undocumented immigrants should have access to the vaccine. But Monday's statement marks the first time the Department of Homeland Security has publicly addressed the matter.

"DHS is committed to ensuring that every individual who needs a vaccine can get one, regardless of their immigration status," the department said.

Monday's statement echoes past guidance from US Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement during natural disasters, such as hurricanes, when it's common for the agencies to announce they're refraining from enforcement actions in an effort to make sure vulnerable people aren't afraid to seek help.

ICE also generally refrains from enforcement at places the agency deems "sensitive locations," including hospitals.

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