Florida vaccine residency rule may block access for migrant farmworkers

A state proof of residency requirement is raising concerns about whether migrant workers will be able to get inoculated at all.
Olga Perez sorts through boxes of produce during a food distribution event for farmworker migrant families at the Guatemalan Maya Center in Lake Worth, Florida on Friday, January 15, 2020.
Olga Perez sorts through boxes of produce during a food distribution event for farmworker migrant families at the Guatemalan Maya Center in Lake Worth, Florida on Friday, January 15, 2020. [ MATIAS J. OCNER | Miami Herald ]
Published Jan. 22, 2021|Updated Jan. 23, 2021

Since the start of the pandemic, Herlinda Mendez, a 52-year-old migrant worker who spends her days harvesting green beans in Palm Beach County, has felt like she keeps getting the short end of the stick.

“When the health crisis started, we got no (personal protective equipment) from our employers. Then when testing sites started, none came here. The majority of us all got sick. Some died,” Mendez told the Times/Herald as she tucked her two children into bed.

“Now the vaccines are here, I can’t help but feel invisible,” Mendez, who is undocumented, said. “Without us farmworkers, people wouldn’t have food on the table. It feels like we’re only essential when it’s convenient to be essential.”

Mendez is among the hundreds of thousands of Florida farmworkers who hope to be prioritized during the next round of vaccine distribution. But a state proof of residency requirement is raising concerns about whether many of them will be able to get inoculated at all.

Workers who are considered essential to the economy are expected to be next in line, according to the state’s draft vaccination plan, though officials have not yet defined who is in that category. Further complicating matter is that many farmworkers are guest workers on temporary visas or undocumented.

“The majority of our families don’t have a Florida ID; the ID they mostly have is a Guatemalan consulate ID,” said Lindsay McElroy, a spokesperson for the Guatemalan-Maya Center, a nonprofit that has served migrant families in Florida for decades.

The advisory, signed by Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees on Thursday, requires vaccine recipients to show a valid Florida driver’s license or photo identification, a utility bill with a Florida address and the patient’s name, or, a part-time rental agreement. Mail from a financial institution or a government agency that shows the individual’s name and Florida address can also be provided as proof.

Florida’s new vaccine residency requirements come after reports of “vaccine tourism,” people traveling to Florida from another country or state to get the vaccine.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has previously 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 inoculated.

When the Times/Herald asked how the residency rule would impact undocumented immigrants in Florida, state Department of Health spokesman Jason Mahon on Friday restated the rule and did not provide additional comment on farmworkers.

“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 McElroy. “He is actively excluding essential farmworkers from the vaccine.”

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Roughly 200,000 migrant and seasonal farmworkers and their families travel and work in Florida every year, many of whom live in migrant labor camps and group housing, according to the Florida Department of Health. The plight of the farmworkers highlights a larger debate about undocumented immigrant access to the vaccine.

The office of Nikki Fried, Florida’s agriculture commissioner and a Democrat who is often critical of DeSantis, said in a statement Friday that she has advocated for all farmworkers to be included in the next phase of vaccinations. However, her office did not indicate whether she had received a response on that request.

“Farmworkers are essential workers and critical to the safe, secure domestic food supply that’s vital to our national security,” Fried said. “If you live here and work here, if you’re part of Florida’s food supply chain, you should be in line for vaccines.”

Florida’s vaccine distribution has already exposed racial disparities in some communities, and many Black senior residents are being vaccinated at a slower rate than white senior residents, according to state COVID-19 data from this week.

Jared Moskowitz, the director of the state’s Division of Emergency Management, on Friday tweeted that “access and hesitancy are factors” that have contributed to the racial gap.

Those two factors are likely to come into play with many migrant and undocumented workers, who have an ingrained fear of U.S. immigration authorities.

“Some of the farm owners have told their employees that the vaccine is ‘a ploy to kill immigrants.’ We’ve heard theories like the vaccine is ‘just a tool to lure immigrants to (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) so that they can deport you,’” said Maria Carolina, a migrant who works at a nursery in Palm Beach County and volunteers at the Guatemalan-Maya Center.

“None of this is true, which is why we’ve done a lot of work to educate our community,” Carolina said. “But there’s still fear.”

Florida farmworkers have been vulnerable to infections, and some agricultural communities saw coronavirus cases soar midway through the pandemic. DeSantis attributed some of the spike in positivity rates last summer to outbreaks among “overwhelmingly Hispanic” farmworkers and day laborers.

Despite the known risk, mass local testing in some agricultural communities was slow to come. Doctors Without Borders, an international medical humanitarian group, launched its first mission in Florida in May after considering how vulnerable farmworkers would be to COVID-19.

“We were concerned that there had been no testing done among that population,” said Jean Stowell, a nurse and the head of the U.S. COVID-19 response for Doctors without Borders.

The Guatemalan-Maya Center, located in Lake Worth, consistently saw a 30 percent infection rate among the 600 farmworkers and families that would regularly test on a Saturday night, according to a Jan. 13 letter the nonprofit organization sent to DeSantis.

In the letter, the organization asked DeSantis to prioritize migrant farmworkers “independent of their immigration status” during the next round of vaccine distribution.

“Those who have labored tirelessly in the fields throughout the pandemic deserve concrete action that recognizes their significance to the lives of every American,” the letter says.

Even if farmworkers end up on the vaccine priority list, accessing doses could still be a hurdle as a result of state and local hospital policies.

State law gives law enforcement the authority to enforce the state’s proof of residency requirement and leaves it up to county public health officials to establish the procedures for implementing the state rule.

Several South Florida hospitals have started implementing the residency requirement.

Jackson Health System, a public hospital in Miami-Dade that has historically served vulnerable communities like undocumented migrants, the homeless or people without insurance, is requiring a government-issued photo ID to confirm the patient’s age.

“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,” the hospital told the Miami Herald.

The same went for Memorial Healthcare System, Broward’s public health system.

“We are taking a photo ID, which is a state driver’s license. It does not have to be a Florida ID. It needs to be a valid state-issued DL/ID. We are currently not accepting any other forms of ID, such as passports,” Memorial Healthcare spokeswoman Kerting Baldwin said in a written statement.

Sandy Sosa Guerrero, a spokesperson for Larkin Hospital, which contracts with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to treat detainees, said patients can show any government-issued picture ID, including foreign passports, if they have a utility bill from Florida.

“ICE is working with state and local health departments to ensure that the ICE detainee population is included in state vaccination plans,” an ICE spokesman told the Herald in an email. “All states were advised on the number of individuals and facilities where detainees are housed.”

St. Mary’s Medical Center, Palm Beach’s public hospital, would not comment on ID requirements.

Frank O’Loughlin, a parish priest who started working with migrant families in Indian Town in Central Florida in the 1960s, says the state, through its policies, is failing to provide vaccines to the families of the agricultural workforce.

“Ron DeSantis has determined whose families deserve to live and whose families deserve to die,” he said.