South Florida immigrants struggle to access COVID-19 vaccine

People wait in line at a testing and vaccination site in Opa-Locka, Fla. (Courtesy of Lynne Sladky)

It was a hot day in Miami as Lucila Gallardo made her way to the front of the line. She’d been waiting almost three hours to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

For the fourth time in a month, a worker at the site asked if she has a Florida identification card. Gallardo shook her head no. Without it, no COVID-19 vaccine site had been willing to vaccinate Gallardo — an undocumented Honduran migrant living in Allapattah. 

She’s a single mother of two who makes ends meet as a housekeeper. Not being able to get the vaccine comes at a high price. Gallardo suffers from heart complications, putting her at high risk. 

“I feel like they don’t want us [immigrants] to be vaccinated,” said Gallardo. “We are seen as less, even though we are the ones that work the most.”

Throughout Miami-Dade County, many undocumented immigrants have been turned away from vaccination sites despite the increasing availability of the shots. Some local immigration organizations have been trying to get the vulnerable population vaccinated, finding alternatives to prove residency. 

In South Florida, anyone planning to get the vaccine are required to show a Florida driver’s license or U.S. government-issued photo identification, a utility bill with a Florida address and the individual’s name, or a rental agreement. Mail from a financial institution or a government agency that shows the person’s name and Florida address can also be provided. 

But those requirements aren’t flexible enough.

“Many of our workers have not been able to get access to the vaccine,” said Oscar Londono, executive director of WeCount!, a South Dade immigrant workers’ center. “Most have reported that they’ve been turned away.”

Florida’s new vaccine residency requirements come after reports of “vaccine tourism,” people traveling to Florida from other countries or states to get the vaccine.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has said he approves of “snowbirds” and full-time Florida residents getting the vaccine, but that he does not want people to “come from another country or whatever,” flying to Florida to get vaccinated.

And this is not just a Florida phenomenon. Although eligibility requirements vary from state to state, national immigration experts have said that tracking vaccine accessibility by migration status has been difficult. They also note that asking for documentation may deter some immigrants from trying to get the shot. 

“It’s slowing down our path to recovery,” said Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center. “The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) could minimize the percentage of undocumented people being turned away by issuing clarification that lack of documentation cannot be a reason to deny anyone the vaccine. Our collective well-being depends on all of us, including immigrants.”

Immigration advocates have urged Gov. DeSantis to expand eligibility as there are, in the state of Florida alone, 390,000 undocumented immigrant essential workers, many who work within agriculture, food service, education and healthcare. 

Yet their requests have been largely ignored as immigrants are excluded from pandemic relief packages.

“The governor knows many of these essential workers won’t be able to provide an ID or proof of residency due to their immigration status,” said Hincapié. “He is actively excluding them from the vaccine.”

When asked how proving residency would impact undocumented immigrants in Florida, state Department of Health spokesman Jason Mahon restated the residency rule and did not provide additional comment on essential immigrant workers.

Several hospitals in Miami-Dade have already implemented the residency requirement.

Jackson Health System, a public hospital that has been known to serve communities such as undocumented migrants, the homeless or people without insurance, is requiring government-issued photo IDs to confirm patients’ ages.

“If the ID is issued by a foreign government, we also require proof of residency in the United States such as a lease, property tax bill or utility bill,” stated the hospital.

Other vaccine sites, either federally, state or county-run, are also requiring proof of residency. 

Mass assistance for the immigrant population in South Florida is coming slowly. Organizations are pushing local governments to expand both testing and vaccination programs to undocumented individuals without requiring a Florida ID. 

As thousands face an uncertain future in this country, migrant workers can only hope to be prioritized in the next round of vaccinations.

Elizabeth Garcia is a senior at Florida International University and studies journalism. She aspires to work for National Geographic as a photojournalist and to continue her work as a youth soccer coach.