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Feb. 2, 2021, 2:08 p.m. EST

ICE won’t make immigration-enforcement arrests at COVID-19 vaccine sites, DHS says

By Meera Jagannathan

Federal immigration officials won’t conduct enforcement operations at coronavirus vaccine sites, the Department of Homeland Security said this week amid widespread concerns over vaccine access and hesitancy among undocumented immigrants.

Homeland Security and its federal partners “fully support” undocumented immigrants’ equal access to COVID-19 vaccines and distribution sites, the agency said in a statement . The department “encourages all individuals, regardless of immigration status, to receive the COVID-19 vaccine once eligible under local-distribution guidelines.” 

“It is a moral and public-health imperative to ensure that all individuals residing in the United States have access to the vaccine,” the statement said. “U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection will not conduct enforcement operations at or near vaccine-distribution sites or clinics.”

ICE “does not and will not” conduct enforcement actions at or near health facilities, barring extraordinary circumstances, the statement added, citing the agency’s longstanding “sensitive locations” policy .

Also read: Biden to sign executive orders on immigration, rolling back Trump policies

About 10.5 million unauthorized immigrants lived in the U.S. as of 2017, according to a Pew Research Center estimate, making up roughly 23% of the foreign-born population. Experts say it will be vital to vaccinate this group not just from a moral standpoint, but from a public-health perspective.

Kaiser Family Foundation research suggests that the country’s 22 million noncitizen immigrants, a group that includes both undocumented and lawfully present immigrants, have likely faced substantial COVID-19 exposure risks through their work and living situations, and experienced heightened financial strain during the pandemic from low income and job loss.

This statement was the department’s first to address undocumented immigrants’ access to COVID-19 vaccines. Biden had said during his presidential campaign that every individual in the U.S. should have access to a vaccine regardless of immigration status, and Trump administration surgeon general Jerome Adams said publicly in December that “no one in this country should be denied a vaccine because of their documentation status.”

Biden’s $1.9-trillion COVID-19 stimulus proposal says that his administration will work to ensure everyone in the country, “regardless of their immigration status,” can receive the vaccine for free. And some states, including Illinois and Arizona, have explicitly included undocumented individuals in their vaccine-distribution messaging.

Still, advocates and experts have warned that many immigrants’ fears of potentially being exposed to deportation or having their immigration status jeopardized have made them wary of accessing programs and services.

One source of concern may be the Trump administration’s public-charge rule , though U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services have said they won’t include COVID-19 testing, treatment or vaccines in public-charge determinations. 

As for concerns about sharing personal information with the government, the CDC’s vaccine-data use and sharing agreement states that vaccine recipients’ data may not be used “for any civil or criminal prosecution or enforcement, including, but not limited to, immigration enforcement.”

But the country’s “confusing and complicated” immigration-policy climate has made many immigrants increasingly uncertain, Samantha Artiga, the director of KFF’s racial equity and health policy program, previously told MarketWatch. Other obstacles may include concerns over potential vaccine costs, transportation difficulties, language barriers and lack of work and child-care flexibility, said a recent KFF report co-authored by Artiga. 

Health experts have also stressed the importance of vaccinating immigrants held in ICE detention centers, where COVID-19 has spread rapidly . There were at least 524 individuals with confirmed positive cases in custody as of Sunday, according to ICE detainee statistics ; in total, 9,178 people had tested positive for COVID-19 and nine had died.

“The provision of a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine is essential to provide protection against COVID-19 in one of the most vulnerable populations for which the federal government holds responsibility,” wrote the authors of a Jan. 14 New England Journal of Medicine article , referring to the virus that causes COVID-19. “Vaccinating detainees is both good medicine and a humane approach to a completely disenfranchised population.”

ICE has been working with state and local health departments to make sure the agency’s detainee population is included in states’ vaccination plans, ICE spokesperson Danielle Bennett told MarketWatch on Tuesday.

“All states were advised on the number of individuals and facilities where detainees are housed. Most states will be following the CDC priority guidance ,” Bennett said. “Vaccines for detainees are being allocated by local and state health departments, and timelines vary based on availability and priorities within each state.”

States’ public-health approaches to the coronavirus have “varied considerably,” the NEJM article noted. Louisiana was the only state with a vaccine plan that specifically mentioned migrant detention facilities, according to the authors’ review of state plans.

“At least 14 states lack plans to prioritize any incarcerated populations for SARS-CoV-2 immunization,” they added.

Link to MarketWatch's Slice.