Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts says “legal residents” will get vaccine priority over undocumented workers


Zach Gilbert

Governor Pete Ricketts’ incendiary remarks about withholding COVID-19 vaccines from undocumented workers have received countrywide condemnation. Photo courtesy of AP.

On Monday, Jan. 6, Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts was asked about vaccination efforts for undocumented workers in Nebraska’s meatpacking facilities, and his response has remained a source of controversy, earning countrywide condemnation.

“You’re supposed to be a legal resident of the country to be able to be working in those plants,” he said. “So, I do not expect that illegal immigrants will be a part of that vaccine program.”

Taylor Gage, director of strategic communications for the governor, was quick to clarify Ricketts’ statement on Twitter, assuring that immigrants will still receive the vaccine, but at a later date.

“Nebraska is going to prioritize citizens and legal residents ahead of illegal immigrants,” Gage wrote.

Still, many advocates for undocumented workers continue to be concerned with the governor’s handling of this immunization campaign, especially since these individuals often work in overcrowded facilities that must remain safe so that the nation’s food supply is not affected.

In an interview with The Washington Post, senior programs director at local nonprofit Nebraska Appleseed James Goddard said that Ricketts’ response was “alarming,” not only because these undocumented immigrants are essential workers who face a high risk of exposure to COVID-19, but also because “it would be logistically impossible – and potentially illegal – to screen their legal status while administering vaccines.”

“It’s terrible public-health policy,” Goddard 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.”

Just this past September, thousands of workers were infected at meatpacking plants in Nebraska and nearby states, with COVID-19 claiming the lives of hundreds, highlighting the very real hazards that these employees face. According to estimates from the Migration Policy Institute, undocumented workers represent 11 percent of the workforce in facilities in Nebraska, and approximately 10 percent in plants across the country.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., brought nationwide attention to Ricketts’ comments, calling them “racist” and retweeting a Twitter post suggesting that no undocumented meat packing workers would receive the vaccine whatsoever. Though that claim has since been disproven by Gage, who noted that U.S. citizenship would not be a requirement to be vaccinated, it seems as if much of the harm has already been done.

Dulce Castañeda, an organizer with the activist group Children of Smithfield, told The Post that many undocumented workers still fear the possibility of having to prove their legal status to be included in vaccine distribution. Though Ricketts has backed away from his more extreme rhetoric, Castañeda hopes that that petrifying plan never comes to pass.

“The virus isn’t discriminating based on immigration status,” Castañeda said. “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?”