As an international student in the United States living through the entirety of the pandemic in San Francisco, I was able to see how COVID-19 accentuated issues of vaccine equity and access in California.
As COVID-19 continued to speed through the U.S., California has prioritized vulnerable people such as older adults and health care workers for vaccinations. However, California initially failed to provide a clear plan to vaccinate one of the most vulnerable populations in the state, immigrants in detention, despite ongoing outbreaks in these facilities. For months now, advocates have led a campaign centering on the idea that California has the responsibility and moral duty to protect the health of individuals in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention and ensure they have access to accurate information.
California is home to seven detention facilities that hold immigrant detainees, and all of them have been sites of major COVID-19 outbreaks. These places are usually overpopulated, and social distancing and hygiene measures can be challenging. Six facilities operate under for-profit prison operators and therefore must comply with state public health orders.
With horrible conditions that accelerate the uncontrollable spread of the virus inside detention facilities, not only is the health of incarcerated individuals at risk, but also of the staff and the communities they belong to are put at risk. Despite this, states have constantly failed in protecting immigrants in detention centers, which resulted in tragic consequences. As of today, more than 750 people have tested positive in California’s seven immigration detention centers, including the case of the first significant outbreak and the first COVID-19 related death at the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego.
Last December, Immigrant Defense Advocates in partnership with the California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice launched a campaign, asking California state officials for clarifications regarding the COVID-19 vaccine rollout in immigrant detention facilities. While immigrants in detention and advocates welcomed the news that California clarified its plan to include immigrants in the state’s vaccine distribution plan, key factors were still not considered with respect to potential barriers to vaccination among immigrants, such as education and accurate access to information.
The California Department of Public Health has stressed how vaccination is one of the most important tools to end the pandemic, providing the necessary information to make an informed decision and educating the general public on different vaccines and their side effects. Still, the same can not be said for immigrants detained in carceral settings who are hesitant about getting vaccinated. It is a substantial lack of adequate information and education around the vaccine and a long history of mistreatment in the U.S that justifies their doubts.
In addition to this campaign, advocates have sponsored Assembly Bill 263, which is designed to ensure that all ICE detention facilities in California comply immediately with health and safety orders. However, with the bill’s passing from the Public Safety Committee on March 24, questions concerning the vaccine rollout in detention centers and detainees’ protection still need to be addressed. Since these facilities are operated privately, many local and state officials believe that nothing can be done, when it is quite clear where the state of California can intervene to ensure the health and safety of all its residents including those in federal congregate settings.
Public health authorities both at state and local levels should have responsibilities in providing the vaccine, being involved in its distribution, as well as giving the right amount of information to individuals detained in these facilities. For-profit detention facilities have refused to adhere to health and safety orders. By passing AB 263, California can have direct oversight to ensure private detention operators comply with public health orders. The bill also has an urgency clause which, once signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, will go into effect immediately.
Receiving a life-saving vaccine can contribute to a safe release of immigrants to their families and communities and thus contributing to the success of the state’s reopening in the summer.
Martina Caretta is a graduate student in the International Studies program at the University of San Francisco.