'Who do they trust? It’s their union.’ Organized labor steps in to convince immigrant workers to get vaccines

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Unions and advocacy groups are racing to convince both documented and undocumented immigrant workers that they should get Covid-19 shots after former President Donald Trump’s immigration crackdowns sowed fears about using government services.

Organizations involved with industries where immigrants are concentrated — such as service, agriculture and domestic jobs — are holding webinars in as many as a dozen different languages, launching texting programs, circulating fact sheets and running phone banks to raise awareness about coronavirus vaccination. Some are even running their own inoculation sites.

The Biden administration has tried to counteract vaccine hesitancy among immigrants by stressing that anyone can receive the shots regardless of immigration status and promising there will be no enforcement activity near vaccination sites. But unions and advocacy groups say four years of anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies coming from the White House have eroded trust in government.

President Joe Biden “has said the right thing about equal access to the vaccine, regardless of status,” said Don Kerwin, executive director of the Center for Migration Studies. “But immigrants don’t always hear that clearly, given that they’ve been living in this context of fear, and basically, disincentives to come forward for anything in the way of benefits or services.”

Failure to effectively inoculate this population could exacerbate racial health inequities and jeopardize the country’s recovery, public health experts warn. About 8 percent of the U.S. workforce — 13 million people — are either undocumented or have temporary authorization to work, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Immigrants are especially concentrated in essential jobs, such as farming, ranching and food services.


One particular cause of hesitancy is the Trump-era public charge rule, which allowed officials to deny green cards and visas to immigrants who accessed public benefits. Even though the Biden administration has halted enforcement of that policy, many immigrants are still afraid to use health care services, advocates say.

“I cannot tell you how many times we’re telling our members … ‘It’s okay, you can come forward and get vaccinated, and you will not be considered a public charge and therefore not able to get your green card,’” said Haeyoung Yoon, senior policy director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. The advocacy group is hosting webinars where doctors can answer immigrant workers’ questions, among other efforts.

In addition to running their own vaccine information campaigns, unions and advocacy groups are lobbying state and local governments to make it easier for immigrant workers to receive the vaccine, such as by prioritizing essential workers and accepting a wider range of documents demonstrating eligibility. Pay stubs and business cards can present challenges for immigrant workers.

Some worry that sharing their personal data could lead to immigration enforcement against them. And for many, it’s especially hard to get the vaccine because they have limited transportation options, a lack of flexibility at work, language barriers or no existing relationship with a health care provider. All of this contributes to “extraordinary misinformation on this issue in immigrant communities,” Kerwin said.

The Service Employees International Union — which says about 25 percent of its 2 million members identify as immigrants — is lobbying state and local governments to ensure that prioritization lines up with need and that vaccines are offered at times and places convenient for essential workers.

United Service Workers West, a local chapter of SEIU, has established a community vaccination site at its Los Angeles office and is looking to do the same at its San Jose and San Diego offices, spokesperson Stephen Boardman said. And in the Midwest, another SEIU local chapter is lobbying state and local government officials to facilitate vaccination of immigrant workers.

“We have raised with all of the authorities that we can that ID requirement is a barrier,” said Greg Kelley, president of SEIU Healthcare in Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and Kansas. "Asking status is a barrier."

Kelley’s chapter is collaborating with nursing home owners to convince employees to get vaccinated. As part of that effort, Kelley himself got a shot on camera.

“They reached out and said, ‘We know your members trust you. Would you be willing to work with us?’” he said.

In some cases, local governments have reached out directly to unions for help reaching workers. United Domestic Workers of America — an American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees affiliate — is working with California counties who have asked the union to help spread the word on the vaccines.

Government officials “don’t have the level of trust” or in some instances, the resources to conduct outreach the way unions can, said Matthew Maldonado, who directs the chapter’s organizing and field services. "Pockets of communities, people of color: Who do they trust? It’s [people like] their union that represent them in other areas of their lives.”

There’s more the government can do, union officials and advocates say, including by continuing to support unions, advocates and other community-based organizations, providing workers with alternative ways of proving their eligibility and conducting outreach in several languages and via text, rather than only online. SEIU leaders have met with administration officials to convey some of these recommendations, said Leslie Frane, who oversees the union’s health care division.

“This should be the constant theme of the relevant Cabinet members of the president, of Congress, of public officials,of all kinds of governors,” Kerwin said. “I don’t know why that wouldn’t be a high priority for every public official at this point.”

“People have to come forward. Everybody comes forward, regardless of status.”

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