Advocates call for COVID-19 vaccines for migrants, given abysmal vaccination rates in Latin America

Border Report Tour

9 in 10 people in Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras haven't received vaccine, while U.S. struggles to convince reluctant Americans to take advantage of supply

An immigration official uses a protective face mask as a preventive measure against the new coronavirus, COVID-19, upon the arrival of Guatemalan migrants deported from the United States, at the Air Force base in Guatemala City, on March 12, 2020. (Photo by JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP via Getty Images)

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – As COVID-19 vaccination rates continue to lag in Latin America, advocates in the United States are renewing calls to inoculate newly arrived migrants and asylum-seekers.

Data released this week by the Council of the Americas and the PanAmerican Health Organization show that less than 10% of the population of Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras has received a COVID-19 vaccine as of April 30.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as of this week maintained a Level 4 travel advisory on those three countries, warning Americans to avoid all travel there.

Almost 13% of the people of El Salvador are now inoculated but less than 2% have received both doses. Those are the four countries where most migrants encountered by U.S. immigration authorities are coming from in 2021.

The percentage of the population vaccinated in each country with available data, breaking down the portion that is at least partially vaccinated as well as the portion fully immunized. Data as of April 30, 2021. (Graphic courtesy AS-COA)

By comparison, 149.5 million Americans – nearly half of the population – have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine and 100.3 million are fully protected, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Across the country a lot of communities are in a situation that all that want the vaccine are, in fact, vaccinated. The struggle is reaching those that are hesitant or not interested in it at all,” said Areana Quiñones, executive director of Houston-based Doctors for Change. “(But) if no one else in the community is stepping forward and the vaccine supply is there, it makes sense to offer it to asylum seekers and migrants coming across the border.”

More than 65% of El Paso County residents, for instance, have already received at least one dose of the vaccine and 45.1% are now fully vaccinated.

In March, U.S. Customs and Border Protection came across more than 172,000 migrants, many fleeing crime and poverty in their countries. April numbers are likely to be similar or slightly higher, according to national news organizations with access to preliminary data.

Advocacy groups have become aware that migrant families are not only coming into the country with no COVID-19 protection, but also without basic childhood disease protection for their children.

“It’s been a process trying to advocate to make sure families in detention receive good medical care, including that everyone is up to date in their vaccines, especially as it relates to the current pandemic,” Quiñones said. “We definitely advocate that everyone be offered the opportunity to be fully vaccinated.”

Such efforts should start at immigration detention centers and processing centers, which still field large groups of migrants despite the change in administration, other advocates said.

“Asylum-seekers and migrants should have equal access to vaccines at immigration centers and in this country,” said Eleanor Acer, senior director of refugee protection at Human Rights First.

She said her group and others warned of a looming health crisis in detention centers since the start of the pandemic. As of this month, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement had 16,721 people in detention, with 1,594 coronavirus-positive detainees in isolation or under monitoring.

“People shouldn’t be held in immigration detention in times of COVID-19 at all,” Acer said. “Offering vaccinations to those that are coming and are going to be in detention or out in the community would be essentially good public health.”

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