NEW YORK — Experts make it clear: Everyone in the United States that is able to get vaccinated needs to get the vaccine to help the nation achieve herd immunity from the coronavirus, and that includes the millions of undocumented immigrants countrywide.
However, there’s growing concern that not enough is being done to inform and help the undocumented population feel comfortable about the vaccine.
“There’s a lot of fear in that community and I think developing that trust and buy-in needs to be a step taken before any authorities, public health systems, healthcare systems, even begin to create vaccination campaigns in those communities,” Dr. Ranit Mishori, interim chief public health officer and professor of family medicine at Georgetown University, told Crux.
“The main argument is for the whole country to be safe. In order to achieve herd immunity, we have to vaccinate as many people as possible regardless of residency or citizenship status. The higher percentage of the population that is vaccinated, the more protected are the people who are most vulnerable,” she said.
Mishori notes that as essential workers – for example those working in transportation and custodial jobs and in grocery stores – many undocumented immigrants are more exposed and vulnerable to infection; but that vulnerability and exposure doesn’t necessarily outweigh the fear of personal information ending up in the hands of the government.
Victor Carmona, an assistant professor in the department of theology and religious studies at the University of San Diego, says many undocumented immigrants are wary of getting the vaccine.
“Trust with the government is very limited right now. I know of undocumented immigrants who are concerned precisely with government agencies sharing information with one another,” Carmona said.
He said the lack of trust is because “society has failed them” throughout the pandemic.
“Why have we deemed them to be essential workers and yet we have not ceased deportations. What message are you sending them? That you are disposable. Frankly we need to earn that trust back but trust is essentially lost and it’s hard to regain,” he told Crux.
Hosffman Ospino, chairman of the department of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry at Boston College, told Crux that in addition to mistrust in the government, there’s also a “range of misinformation that people are receiving that could have major repercussions in terms of where people go and receive the vaccine.”
Ospino has heard conspiracy theories that the government will use the vaccine to gather information and deport people.
Some undocumented immigrants also believe that because there are two doses of the vaccine, there needs to be a record of information kept that will be used against them. Ospino also noted there’s misinformation coming from Latin America about the healthcare system and efficacy of the vaccine.
Ospino put the onus on the hierarchy of the American Catholic Church to disseminate truthful information. He acknowledged the statement made by the U.S. Bishops’ Conference encouraging people to get vaccinated but questioned if it’s actually a unified message.
“I worry that many leaders in our faith community use their platforms to communicate their personal views about these matters. I think in general bishops need to make sure all of their pastors, ministers, lay leaders are all on the same page with the same message. It would help very much with the undocumented community. Messaging is key,” he said.
For example, Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler has encouraged parishioners in his diocese not get the vaccine until there’s an alternative available that doesn’t use cell lines that originated from an abortion performed decades ago, even though both the USCCB and Vatican said such a connection is “remote” and it is morally licit to use the vaccines.
Ospino also suggested that the Catholic church launch a campaign and share information through the venues immigrants use to communicate, such as WhatsApp and Spanish-language television and radio.
“The Catholic church partnering with large Spanish speaking networks that provide information in Spanish so they can communicate that message and reach out to the community and say, ‘if you have questions contact us,’” he said. “Because most undocumented immigrants are Spanish speaking, but also speak Asian or African languages we have a responsibility to share these messages in as many languages as possible.”
Ospino also pointed out the effectiveness of church officials getting the vaccine publicly, such as Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, and Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago.
“It really helps. It helps because particularly among Latino immigrants, the church hierarchy are held in very high esteem. When these people lead by example I think it’s a very good move,” Ospino said.
Brian Kane, senior director of ethics at the Catholic Health Association, added that it’s important for the message to come from people that are trusted in these communities.
“The closer we can get to the local level, particularly to people on the ground, I think the more effective it’s going to be. We want to place power where people at the lowest possible level to connect to people that need the service,” he told Crux.
Mishori noted it’s not just leaders in the church, but also in the healthcare profession.
“We’re talking about working with community health workers, community representatives that are bi-cultural and bi-lingual. It’s just not enough to have a white doctor that speaks high school Spanish to convince somebody. But someone that’s talking about it that are bicultural and bilingual leaders in the community and that have trust in the community that can be more trusted ambassadors to get more of these populations to trust the vaccine,” she said.
Ospino worries that the vaccination program is being rolled out “at a time when immigration has been used as a football for political gain.”
“All we need is one political leader to start playing football with the vaccine and use whatever information they gather on undocumented immigrants and use it against them and the ripple effect will be disastrous,” he said.
Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg