On Tuesday morning, House Republicans held a news conference to declare another crisis at the border. But this time, the warning came with a lethal twist. Rep. Liz Cheney, the GOP’s third-ranking House leader, said Democrats had “decided to open the border and to let in thousands of people, potentially, who have got COVID.” Rep. Steve Scalise, the party’s second-ranking leader, warned, “There are superspreader caravans coming across our southern border.” Cheney and Scalise echoed Greg Abbott, the Republican governor of Texas, who accused President Joe Biden last week of “releasing hundreds of illegal immigrants who have COVID into Texas communities.” Abbott also claimed that public officials “refused to test” the immigrants and that the Biden administration was “putting these people on buses and sending them” throughout the country.
All of these allegations are false or misleading. But Republicans aren’t just lying. They’re making the situation worse. While vilifying undocumented immigrants as potential COVID carriers, they’re refusing to vaccinate them.
On Feb. 1, the Department of Homeland Security issued a statement encouraging undocumented immigrants to sign up for COVID vaccinations. The statement promised that immigration officers would “not conduct enforcement operations at or near vaccine distribution sites.” Scalise attacked the statement, calling it “President Biden’s plan to vaccinate illegal immigrants ahead of Americans.” A week later, at a Feb. 11 House hearing, Rep. Jeff Duncan, a South Carolina Republican, proposed an amendment to force these immigrants to the back of the vaccine line. Rep. Debbie Lesko, an Arizona Republican, framed the issue as a political weapon, warning that she would tell her constituents “my Democratic colleagues are putting illegal immigrants over them.” Fox News picked up this line of attack and has been running with it ever since.
Technically, Republicans aren’t proposing to ban vaccinations for undocumented immigrants. But in practice, their position comes to the same thing. No “illegal immigrants” should get shots until “all” documented people are vaccinated, says Lesko. Scalise’s office says it’s a matter of basic math: “For every vaccine an illegal immigrant gets, that’s one an American citizen waiting in line is not getting.” Duncan, as he presented his amendment, declared, “The American government should not use American tax dollars on vaccines for non-American citizens.” That principle would rule out immunization of noncitizen legal residents as well as people who don’t have documents.
Duncan describes vaccination as a free health “benefit” that’s being stolen by foreigners. But vaccination doesn’t just benefit the person who gets the shot. It protects everyone else, too, by eliminating or radically reducing that person’s ability to transmit the virus. In fact, by this logic, undocumented immigrants should be a target group for inoculation. They’re in the thick of the economy, and most of them aren’t sitting at desks on Zoom calls. They make up half of our farmworkers, about 10 percent of the meatpacking industry (some estimates range up to 30 percent or higher), and more than 8 percent of the total workforce in Texas. Many are doing high-contact medical jobs, including long-term care.
Scalise and Duncan portray these people as hustlers who jumped the line to get into the United States and now want to “jump ahead” of everyone else to get vaccines. But according to clinics around the country, undocumented immigrants are hanging back from vaccination, in part because they’re afraid they’ll be seized and deported. That fear is dangerous not just for them but for everyone around them, because in many cases, their living conditions—shared residences, low savings, no access to unemployment benefits—make it more likely that they’ll get infected and that they’ll have to keep working anyway.
The GOP’s scare campaign about caravans is particularly bizarre. At the Feb. 11 House hearing, Scalise described one of the “superspreader” caravans he claimed was coming up from Latin America. He said (falsely) that Biden had told migrants they could get the vaccine for free, and that this offer had “encouraged more people to come here illegally.” Scalise told his colleagues that vaccinations for undocumented immigrants would “add an incentive to have even more people come here illegally and take the vaccine away from Americans who can’t get it today.”
It’s hard to know where to begin with this silly argument. If caravans are known superspreaders—as Scalise, Rep. Dan Crenshaw of Texas, and other Republicans continue to allege—then why would anyone, ostensibly desperate to get vaccinated and avoid COVID, join such a throng? According to Scalise, the migrants in these caravans haven’t been vaccinated (that’s why they want the vaccine), they don’t have immunity derived from exposure to the virus (that’s why they’re potential spreaders), and “they’re not wearing masks.” It’s ludicrous to think anyone would trudge across a continent with such a group, based on the possibility of vaccination at the end of the journey.
Bashing undocumented immigrants is a routine tactic from the Republican playbook. You take anything that working-class Americans don’t have enough of—health care, housing, money for college—and accuse Democrats of giving it to “illegals” instead. There’s a principled argument for drawing this distinction: People who don’t follow the law shouldn’t get the same benefits as people who do. But in a respiratory pandemic, that distinction becomes irrelevant. The virus doesn’t care whether you have papers. It only cares whether you breathe.
Support Slate’s politics coverage
Slate is covering the stories that matter to you. Join Slate Plus to support our work. You’ll get unlimited articles and a suite of great benefits.