In California’s San Diego County, rolling out a Covid-19 vaccination program hasn't been made easier by the daily ebb and flow of people across the border with Mexico.
Long before the Biden administration signaled a return to more humane immigration policies, San Diego’s crossing was the busiest in the Western Hemisphere. During the pandemic, nearly 100,000 people a day have continued to cross from Tijuana to work or study and then return. At least another 160,000 undocumented immigrants already live in the county.
So local health officials are doing everything they can to get shots to day workers, part of a much larger effort to vaccinate San Diego’s Latino population. Latinos there have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, representing 56% of Covid-19 cases and 44% of deaths — but only 33% of the population. By contrast, Whites have accounted for 27% of cases, 37% of deaths, yet are 46% of the population. Just 17% of Latinos have been vaccinated so far, compared with 48% of the White population.
“The goal of our vaccination effort is to get needles in arms to all those in the eligible tiers who are out and about within the county of San Diego, regardless of immigration status,” said the county’s spokesperson, Sarah Sweeney.
Most U.S. states and counties have followed somewhat uniform eligibility guidelines for a dose of a still limited supply of Covid vaccines. Most require proof of state residency and age eligibility. San Diego has set out on a different course. Its current policy allows people to get a shot if they can prove they work or live within the county. Unofficially, vaccination sites are often even more lenient, providing shots to virtually anyone who can show they are front-line workers, 65 or older or have pre-existing conditions.
More than 17.5 million people passed through the San Ysidro and Otay Mesa border crossings from Tijuana into the U.S. in 2020, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. That actual number may be double, because most people crossing return to Mexico, but aren’t counted by the agency. Though those crossings represent a 42% decline from 2019, the flow is still significant, consisting almost entirely of those making what’s been categorized as essential travel. That includes a wide variety of employment, everything from construction jobs to working in a flower shop.
The county’s vaccination of day workers and undocumented residents is simply good health-care policy, experts say. “It makes sense for San Diego County to vaccinate them,” said Amesh A. Adalja, an infectious-disease specialist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore, Maryland. “Those are people who would come into county hospitals and put pressure on hospital capacity.”
About 725 miles (1,170 kilometers) to the east of San Diego, a similar situation is unfolding along the border in El Paso, Texas, where officials have said proof of residency is not required of anyone trying to get a vaccine. Hector Ocaranza, a doctor who is the city’s top health official, has said people who live across the border in Ciudad Juarez who register to get a shot in El Paso will get one in an effort to lower the risk of community spread, according to the newsletter Border Report.
The town is following Biden administration guidelines, which state that everyone in priority groups should have access to a vaccine regardless of immigration status. That includes at the state’s mass vaccination sites, which are capable of giving thousands of shots per day. These hubs have to give shots to people who meet age and occupational requirements regardless of where they live, according to Jordan Schupbach, a spokesman for the city of Amarillo, about a five-hour drive northwest of Dallas.
relates to Foreigners Get Vaccinated Too at U.S.’s Busiest Border Crossing
Other regions in the U.S. have taken a harder stance. In Florida, an influx of so-called vaccine tourists, from New York and as far away as Argentina, prompted the state to reverse its initial policy of giving shots to anyone who complied with age requirements. The state now requires people to prove Florida residency.
That crackdown has also blocked countless farm workers and immigrant communities from getting vaccinated, according to advocates. “What Governor Ron DeSantis has done in Florida is explicitly discriminatory,” said Lindsay McElroy, spokesperson at the Guatemala-Mayan Center, a nonprofit in Lake Worth. “He’s making the vaccine inaccessible to the entire immigrant community.”
Governor DeSantis's office did not respond to a request for comment.
In Nebraska, which has a small but fast-growing immigrant population working largely in manufacturing and construction work, the governor’s office has said the state will prioritize citizens and legal residents ahead of undocumented immigrants.
Those sorts of policies are making San Diego’s immigrants look like the lucky ones. Maria Hortensia Rodriguez, 77, managed to get a document proving she works there as a babysitter for a toddler. Once she got a letter, her niece asked the Mexican consulate for help in booking an appointment.
The county is also engaged in outreach efforts within the Latino community, said Sweeney, the county spokesperson. Volunteers called “promotoras” and community health workers attend food distribution events where they help people set up appointments.
Nancy Maldonado, head of the Chicano Federation in San Diego, an advocacy group for immigrants, points out that U.S. residents have crossed to Tijuana to access cheaper health care for years, so it’s only fair to allow Mexicans working in San Diego to get access to the life-saving vaccine. More to the point, she said, “It’s the only way forward if we really want to get a hold of this pandemic.”
When the day came for Hortensia to get her shot, “we brought a folder with all the documents and told the woman we had them, but she just said ‘OK and didn’t even ask to see them,” said her niece, Carmen Marin. “It was weird that they didn’t ask, but thank God she’s been vaccinated.”
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