Immigrant and labor rights advocates as well as progressive lawmakers are denouncing Nebraska's Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts for his decision to exclude undocumented meatpackers from the first round of the state's coronavirus inoculation program, which is set to move into a phase that includes frontline food workers later this month.
"You're supposed to be a legal resident of the country to be able to be working in those plants," Ricketts said Monday, adding that he "does not expect" undocumented workers in the hard-hit sector to be eligible to receive Covid-19 vaccines.
"Refusing vaccines to workers endangers everyone inside and outside the plant!"
According to the Migration Policy Institute, immigrants constitute two-thirds of the workers in Nebraska's meatpacking industry, and the nonprofit estimates that the share of meatpackers who are undocumented varies "from 14% to the majority at some plants."
Ricketts' office attempted to clarify the state government's plan in the aftermath of Monday night's press conference. "While the federal government is expected to eventually make enough vaccine available for everyone in the country, Nebraska is going to prioritize citizens and legal residents," tweeted Taylor Gage, an aide to the governor.
Nevertheless, even if undocumented workers are technically not being denied the vaccine—only pushed to the back of the line, where they could die while waiting—the underlying injustice of dehumanizing and endangering certain employees remains, and it has provoked a flood of outrage on social media.
"Unconscionable and reckless," is how the agricultural reform advocates at Farm Aid on Wednesday described Ricketts' stance, just an hour after the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a food and health watchdog group, called it "outrageous, cruel, and bad public health policy."
Ricketts' decision is "one of the stupidest/most inhumane things so far this year," Safe Workers, a project of progressive advocacy organization Public Citizen that focuses on advancing worker rights and occupational health and safety, said Tuesday.
"Meatpacking plants are hotspots that have spread Covid-19 throughout local communities," the group added. "Refusing vaccines to workers endangers everyone inside and outside the plant!"
NE Gov. says one of the stupidest/most inhumane things so far this year. Meatpacking plants are hotspots that have spread #COVID throughout local communities. Refusing vaccines to workers endangers everyone inside and outside the plant! #ProtectAllWorkers https://t.co/4Dtys4rtgn
— Safe Workers (@SafeWorkers) January 6, 2021
Epidemiologist Eric Feigl-Ding concurred, calling Ricketts' policy "stupid, idiotic, [and] dangerous."
Adding to the chorus of outrage was the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC), which pointed out Monday night that "Covid-19 does not discriminate and neither should Gov. Ricketts."
— Hispanic Caucus (@HispanicCaucus) January 6, 2021
"Imagine being so racist that you go out of your way to ensure that the people who prepare your food are unvaccinated," said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) on Tuesday.
Other Democratic lawmakers also chimed in to condemn Ricketts. The "exclusion of undocumented workers in Nebraska from receiving vaccines is hypocritical, racist, cruel, and only helps spread Covid-19," CHC chairman Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) said Tuesday. "Everyone deserves to be vaccinated, especially the workers who feed us."
Nebraska officials have attempted to clarify the state government's position, which is that "immigrants would still qualify for the vaccine... but those without legal status would have to wait at the back of the line," as the Washington Post reported Wednesday morning.
As the Post reported, this makes Nebraska the only state to "have publicly suggested it will consider legal status in its immunization campaign," a move that critics say is not only unethical but also dangerous. Many undocumented individuals are essential workers, and failure to quickly inoculate people whose jobs put them at a heightened risk of exposure and infection could prolong and exacerbate the pandemic.
"Covid-19 does not discriminate and neither should Gov. Ricketts."
—Congressional Hispanic Caucus
Ricketts' approach would be "logistically impossible—and potentially illegal," explained James Goddard of Nebraska Appleseed, a local nonprofit. "Everyone should have equitable access to the vaccine as expeditiously as possible, but we need to prioritize folks based on public health criteria, not on where someone is from."
Critics say Nebraska's plan "could brew mistrust and scare immigrants away from an immunization campaign meant to reach as many people in Nebraska as possible," the Post noted.
The coronavirus "doesn't ask people if they're a citizen, if they're a resident, if they're on a visa," Dulce Castañeda, an organizer with the activist group Children of Smithfield, told the newspaper in an interview. "So why would we ask that for vaccines?"
Ricketts on Wednesday reportedly labeled Ocasio-Cortez's criticism of the governor's plan to treat undocumented workers unequally "fake news." The New York Democrat "is someone who does not care about Nebraska," he said.
To which Ocasio-Cortez responded: "Given that I want every Nebraskan to have vaccine access, including every meatpacker and not just some, I think I care about more Nebraskans than even Ricketts does."
Given that I want EVERY Nebraskan to have vaccine access, including *every* meatpacker and not just *some*, I think I care about more Nebraskans than even Ricketts does. https://t.co/laHIhGnrfy
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) January 6, 2021
"If the reporting about denying vaccine access to undocumented workers is 'fake news,'" Ocasio-Cortez added, "I am happy to be corrected by you publicly stating that all undocumented Nebraskans, including meatpacking workers, will have access to the vaccine."
In his comments Tuesday, Castro added that "essential workers have earned a fast-track to citizenship," which is something that happened last month in France, when the country rewarded hundreds of frontline workers exposed to the coronavirus on the job with an expedited naturalization process.
In the U.S., meanwhile, "they never run out of ways to abuse the most vulnerable of our fellow humans," said Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Connie Schultz. "This is barbaric."