Immigrants in Michigan are eligible to receive the vaccine against COVID-19 regardless of status

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo  series and our ongoing COVID-19 coverage. If you have a story of how the community is responding to the pandemic please let us know here.

Undocumented immigrants have been risking their health and lives during the pandemic, working on the meat processing lines, in the fields, and doing other forms of essential work. They pay taxes, yet have been shut out of most of the stimulus. Fear of job loss or deportation, barriers of language, and lack of ID, have kept many from seeking help when sick or to keep from becoming sick.

We'll get into the details later on how COVID-19 has hit southwest Michigan's undocumented community hard. But first, this message:

In Michigan, you don't need documentation to get the vaccine.

En Michigan, no necesita documentación para recibir la vacuna.

Evangelina Alvarez, public policy coordinator and DOJ accredited representative of the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, puts it clearly, "Individuals do not need a state identification or driver's license to get the COVID-19 vaccine. In addition, the vaccine is free of cost regardless of immigration status."

No documentation is needed to get tested either, she says.

Evangelina Alvarez of the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center puts it clearly, "Individuals do not need a state identification or driver's license to get the COVID-19 vaccine. In addition, the vaccine is free of cost regardless of immigration status."Information has been a major weapon in the battle against this virus, but getting the word out to undocumented workers is difficult, she says, "due to their work schedules, due to most of them living in rural isolation."  

To help the immigrant community put the pandemic in the past, the MIRC has been partnering with El Concilio, which has been holding vaccination events and helping people get to the Federally Qualified Health Centers in the area such as Kalamazoo's Family Health Center.

"I still need you to show up."

Over the past year, Alvarez has heard many accounts of undocumented immigrants taking the full force of the pandemic's impact, unsupported by any social safety nets.

The saddest, she said, is "when someone passes away from COVID, everybody is scrambling to get money for funeral expenses," because the family, in addition to not being able to get full medical care, had never been able to get life insurance. 

"We know our immigrant community has been on the frontlines, and has risked their lives and the lives of their families, to be working -- again, a lot of our immigrant communities are working in essential industries, mostly the agricultural industry," Alvarez says.

One worker told her, "I expressed my concerns to my employer that I may have exposed somebody with COVID, or that it's possible because we're working in very close proximity to one another. It's not safe for us." 

The worker told her employer "I have symptoms, and I don't feel well, I don't think I should be here because I want to get tested and make sure I don't have COVID."

Alvarez says, "The response that she received from her employer was, 'I still need you to show up. And if you come back with a positive test, then we can have a discussion.'"

A number of sessions have been set up to offer vaccinations. More than 500 people were vaccinated at this event on March 17, most of them Latinx.There was a real likelihood that the worker was infectious, yet she was told to show up for work until she could prove illness with a test result.

"So she said, 'Eva, I have to show up to work whether I want to or not. I have no choice because if I don't show up to work, I cannot feed my children. I cannot pay my rent.' So she had to work through her symptoms until she was able to provide that positive test to her employer." 

This is how outbreaks began in the close quarters of certain industries. "We saw so many different outbreaks across the area. In southwest Michigan in particular, we saw (outbreaks in) meat packing factories like JBS," as well as outbreaks in migrant labor housing where workers are "living with a couple dozen, sometimes up to a hundred individuals in a very small area."

How many undocumented workers have been infected with COVID-19? Alvarez can't say -- she doesn't think the state is tracking the numbers or is able to. 

There are a wide range of reasons, she suspects, why tracking infection rates among the undocumented is nearly impossible: "Individuals may not want to get tested because of the fear of losing income, to be able to provide for their family; the inability to have access to a medical facility if they wanted to get tested. And the lack of diver's license or state ID is huge -- what kind of documentation am I going to present if they ask me for ID?" 

MI Gente

During an online webinar on "Policies Impacting Immigrants during COVID-19," hosted by ONEplace, Alvarez asked participants about the myths surrounding immigration.

Another vaccination event took place April 17 and the Kalamazoo County Expo Center.She lists the responses: "Immigrants are taking our jobs. Immigrants don't pay taxes. They only live on government benefits..."

In fact, undocumented workers do pay taxes, yet don't get most state or federal benefits. Thanks to the ITIN, or Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, immigrants without a Social Security Number can be legal with the IRS and pay income taxes -- though having an ITIN does not provide legal citizen status.

Though undocumented workers have paid taxes, the state and federal benefits available to them are few. Michigan's 102,000 undocumented immigrants were excluded from getting the first and second stimulus checks, Alvarez says. The third stimulus was available for mixed-status households where one member of a couple filed with their SSN and the other with an ITIN. "However, even with that, approximately nine million individuals (nationally) were excluded."

At the state level, the undocumented are not eligible for unemployment, worker's comp, full-scope Medicaid, or for state IDs or driver's licenses, Alvarez says. If COVID-19 hits a family, these are major hindrances. 

In Kalamazoo County, the MI Gente fund has stepped in to help. In the early months of the pandemic, El Concilio organized the assistance fund to help undocumented immigrants impacted by the pandemic. 

With support from individual donations and funders such as the Kalamazoo Community Foundation and the United Way of Battle Creek and Kalamazoo, MI Gente has distributed over $200,000 to individuals and families so far, Alvarez says.

People financially impacted by COVID can apply for assistance from MI Gente by calling 211.

El Concilio is also helping guide undocumented immigrants through the vaccination process, Nathaly Olavarria, community engagement manager for El Concilio, says.

"We have helped the Family Health Center set up appointments for the vaccine back in February and March," she says. 

They've also offered vaccination events at El Concilio on Lake Street in March, where "over 500 received the first dose," she says. The second dose is set to happen Wednesday, April 14 (as of this writing). 

They've partnered with Kalamazoo County for vaccination events. On April 7 at the Expo Center, "we were able to schedule close to 300 people in the Latin community and others as well. We plan on participating in as many vaccine events as possible, especially with the County."

The group has made an effort at bridging the bilingual information gap, Olavarria says. "Everyone at El Concilio speaks both languages, so the language barrier really isn't a problem. We share these events on our Facebook page so the community is aware... word of mouth really works in getting the information out there."

Demand for the shot is high in the community El Concilio serves. "We have been getting many calls regarding the vaccine. If we don't have a set date for an upcoming event, what we do is add them to our waiting list, and as soon as we have a certain date planned, we then begin to call and schedule the appointments," she says.

"We are trying our best to reach as many community members in the county to get vaccinated, and we will continue to do so!"
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Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering a bewildering variety of subjects. He also writes on his epic bike rides across the country. He's written a book on one ride, "Mule Skinner Blues." For more information, see www.markswedel.com.