After briefing reporters Monday on plans to deliver coronavirus vaccines to Nebraska meatpacking plants, Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts was asked whether undocumented workers would be included.
"You're supposed to be a legal resident of the country to be able to be working in those plants," Ricketts replied. "So I do not expect that illegal immigrants will be part of the vaccine with that program."
When his comments quickly went viral, stoking outrage from critics, Nebraska officials rushed to clarify. Immigrants would still qualify for the vaccine, one Ricketts aide said, but those without legal status would have to wait at the back of the line.
"Nebraska is going to prioritize citizens and legal residents ahead of illegal immigrants," the governor's communications director, Taylor Gage, wrote on Twitter on Monday.
That approach still angered many advocates, who argue it could brew mistrust and scare immigrants away from an immunization campaign meant to reach as many people in Nebraska as possible. Despite the remarks from Ricketts, hundreds of undocumented workers do in fact work in the crowded, high-risk facilities deemed essential to the nation's food supply, they say.
"This virus isn't discriminating based on immigration status," Dulce Castañeda, an organizer with the activist group Children of Smithfield, said in an interview with The Washington Post. "It doesn't ask people if they're a citizen, if they're a resident, if they're on a visa. So why would we ask that for vaccines?"
Most states, including Nebraska, have been abiding by federal recommendations to provide vaccines to front-line health-care workers first, followed by residents and staff at nursing homes. But the question of who should get the vaccine next, and when, has proved politically fraught across the nation.
Republican governors in Texas and Florida have bucked the advice of public health officials to focus on essential front-line workers, instead opting to rush vaccinations to a wider swath of the elderly. In Colorado, Democratic Gov. Jared Polis redrafted a heavily criticized plan that put inmates, who have faced some of the nation's deadliest outbreaks, before those with chronic health conditions.
Yet no other state appears have publicly suggested it will consider legal status in its immunization campaign - a move that even federal officials have warned could be dangerous.
"No one in this country should be denied a vaccine because of their documentation status, because it's not ethically right to deny those individuals," U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams told CBS's "Face the Nation" last month.
James Goddard, the senior programs director at the nonprofit Nebraska Appleseed, said in an interview with The Post that it was "alarming" that Ricketts could make undocumented immigrants wait longer for a vaccine. Many are essential workers who in fact deserve high priority given their risk of exposure, he said, and it would be logistically impossible - and potentially illegal - to screen their legal status while administering vaccines.
"It's terrible public-health policy," he said. "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."
Early in the pandemic, the virus ripped through meatpacking facilities in Nebraska and nearby states, infecting thousands of workers at some plants and killing hundreds as plant managers struggled to implement health and safety measures.
During a Monday news conference, Ricketts and Nebraska health officials announced the state was planning to begin administering shots for those 75 and older, working with local health departments as well as pharmacies and medical clinics. Essential workers, including those in meatpacking plants, would not receive vaccines until later, they said.
Pressed by reporters, Ricketts repeatedly suggested that no undocumented workers are employed at Nebraska meatpacking plants.
According to the Associated Press, however, some estimates find that undocumented workers may make up anywhere from 14 percent to a majority of the workforce in meatpacking facilities nationwide. About two-thirds of the workers at Nebraska meatpacking plants are immigrants.
Castañeda, whose activist group has rallied for better protections at the Smithfield plant in Crete, Neb., said she has personally been in contact with over a dozen undocumented workers at the facility.
One widely-shared Twitter post about Ricketts's plan - which was retweeted by the likes of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who called the governor's approach "racist" - erroneously suggested that he would seek to deny the vaccine to all undocumented meat packing workers.
Gage on Monday clarified that U.S. citizenship was not a requirement to receive the vaccine, noting that "the federal government is expected to eventually make enough vaccine available for everyone in the country." (He did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Post late on Tuesday.)
For Castañeda, however, the damage may have already been done.
She said she has already been in touch with undocumented workers fearful of getting tested because they think it requires showing documents or proving their legal status. If immigration matters seep into vaccine distribution, she argued, they may be equally apprehensive about getting their first or second shot.