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Migrants find safe space for vaccinations at Guatemalan Mayan Center in Lake Worth Beach

LAKE WORTH BEACH — Hermalinda sat in a chair near the entrance of the Guatemalan-Maya Center, a nonprofit that advocates for South Florida’s migrant community. With her hands folded in her lap and a ‘Just Vaccinated’ sticker on her arm, she waited patiently to receive her coronavirus vaccine card.

The 43-year-old Lake Worth Beach resident said she was not nervous to receive her second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. “Me siento segura – I feel safe,” she simply said.

Six weeks ago, the center on North G Street in Lake Worth Beach began providing vaccinations for people like Hermalinda, who hail from Mexico and Central and South America, who are eager to avoid getting COVID-19 and spreading it to others but who face obstacles in making it happen.

For Hermalinda, safety is not something taken for granted. Seven years ago, she came to the United States from Guatemala, leaving behind her mother, her two children and most of her family.

In Guatemala, there is "a lot of poverty. There is no work,” she said through a Spanish translator, pausing and glancing sideways. “The process is difficult and the route to the U.S. is very dangerous. There was a lot of mistreatment against women and violence towards children (in Guatemala).”

Throughout the pandemic, Hermalinda continued working at a local bakery. She interacts with people every day, and said she has wanted the vaccine for a long time to protect her health. Getting it, though, was difficult.

Hermalinda speaks little English, and many popular vaccination locations like CVS, Walgreens and Publix Super Markets don’t have translators on hand. The paperwork is in English. Nurses and employees speak English. Before the Guatemalan-Maya Center began its vaccination program, there was nowhere Hermalinda felt comfortable going to receive her vaccination.

Until April 29, Florida vaccine-seekers had to provide proof of their Florida residence in order to get vaccinated. For many undocumented immigrants, some of whom are essential workers filling farming and construction positions, this rule prevented vaccination.

County health department nurse Orlyn Grace prepares a Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at the Guatemalan Maya Center in Lake Worth, Florida on August 13, 2021.

The Guatemalan-Maya Center lobbied the state government and met with U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, to advocate for undocumented immigrants. After Gov. Ron DeSantis abolished the proof of residency prerequisite, the center began working with the Florida Department of Health's Palm Beach County office to provide vaccines.

For the past month and a half, from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays, the center has provided first and second vaccine doses. Last Friday, they vaccinated 100 people.

“It's important because for the most part they are essential workers,” said Lindsay McElroy, the Center’s executive administrative assistant. “Even after the ID requirements were dropped, we did have a few people come in saying they tried to get vaccinated at Publix and they got turned down for not having a Florida ID.

“For a lot of our people, they’re fearful of government entities. … They might be fearful of deportation. They know our center is a trusted one and that we will protect their information.”

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Maria Lopez, 54, also was vaccinated at the center. She has been living in South Florida for 20 years after leaving behind all of her family in Mexico.

“It was very difficult because I came here illegally and I had nothing, so when I crossed it was a big problem,” Lopez said through a Spanish translator. “I walked for 32 hours (from Mexico to Arizona). Then immigration came and made me go back.”

As a housekeeper, remaining unvaccinated was inhibiting Lopez’s ability to work in people’s homes. Though she is fearful of potential side effects from the vaccine, Lopez said she felt comfortable receiving it at the Guatemalan-Maya Center, where translators for at least four languages are present.

Lopez knew she could get vaccinated there because of a mass text message the center sends to 3,700 families. Using a messaging service, the center sent 35,000 texts last month with informational vaccine-related content from the CDC in different languages.

McElroy and others at the Center are also working to dispel misinformation about migrants disproportionately spreading COVID-19.

“We've seen a huge amount of support from the migrant population to get vaccinated, really we just needed to make it accessible to them … and the paperwork available in the language that they speak,” McElroy said. “This is a public health issue. It's not an immigration issue and it shouldn't be made into an immigration issue.”

“It’s false,” Hermalinda said of migrants increasing the spread of COVID-19 through a translator. “We don’t hurt anyone. We have to work a lot, and we just want to work in peace.”

After a short wait, Hermalinda followed suit of those in front of her and received her vaccination card. A translator accompanied her.

“Siento bien — I feel good,” she said.

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