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'Put Americans first!' US Rep. Debbie Lesko wants undocumented immigrants to get COVID-19 vaccines last

'They're very good workers,' Debbie Lesko said. But she backed a change to a COVID bill that ran counter to county, state and Homeland Security vaccine guidelines.

PHOENIX — Republican Congresswoman Debbie Lesko of Peoria urged a U.S. House committee to move undocumented immigrants to the back of the line for vaccinations.

The failed effort would have run counter to public health guidelines in Arizona and advice from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Here are three things you need to know:

Where it happened: The House Energy and Commerce Committee held a marathon, two-day virtual meeting late last week to “mark up” President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 relief bill. The committee debated the bill, heard amendments and voted.

One of those amendments would have sent undocumented immigrants to the back of the line for coronavirus vaccines.

“No vaccines for illegal immigrants jumping to the head of the line to get vaccines,” said Congressman Jeff Duncan of South Carolina, the amendment’s sponsor. “They’ve done it once, by jumping to the head of the line to enter this country, and they’ll do it again.

What Lesko said: Lesko spoke after Duncan.

“All this amendment says is put Americans first! Put Americans first!” Lesko exclaimed.

“Once they’re all vaccinated, then you can go to the illegal immigrants.”

Lesko appeared to conflate undocumented immigrants with all Hispanics.

“I worked with people that are Hispanic,” she said. “They’re very good workers.”

But that was not good enough for Lesko.

“I’m just not going to be able to explain to my senior citizens that we’re giving away the vaccine to people that aren’t here legally.” 

Lesko explained earlier that senior citizens in her district -- home to Sun City and other senior living communities, as well as several long-term care homes -- were having a hard time signing up for vaccinations.

The committee rejected the amendment on a party-line vote.

What are vaccine guidelines? In Arizona, undocumented immigrants can obtain vaccinations under the same distribution guidelines as the larger population.

“Right now, the mission is to get human herd immunity and to vaccinate as many people as possible, regardless of their documentation status,” said Janey Pearl Starks, director of equity, diversity and engagement at Mountain Park Health Center. 

Here are the Arizona Department of Health Services guidelines:

Residency: Residency status is not a requirement in Arizona for getting vaccinated against COVID-19. 

Priority: Undocumented individuals will be prioritized based on their individual risk factors or circumstances. For example, those that are working in a migratory agriculture industry will be prioritized in phase 1B with essential workers. Other undocumented individuals may be vaccinated earlier with the prioritized 1B phase if they work in the education or childcare, fall into a protective services occupation, or are over the age of 65. 

Identification: They would need an ID that shows they are a member of a prioritized group, such as a work ID.

A Maricopa County spokesman says people aren’t being asked about immigration status or whether they are permanent residents of the county.  

“Public Health has said all along the important thing is to have as many people as possible living in our community vaccinated,” spokesman Fields Moseley said via email. 

In a break with the Trump administration, Biden’s Department of Homeland Security is urging undocumented immigrants to get vaccinated:

“DHS and its federal government partners fully support equal access to the COVID-19 vaccines and vaccine distribution sites for undocumented immigrants. 

“It is a moral and public health imperative to ensure that all individuals residing in the United States have access to the vaccine. 

“DHS encourages all individuals, regardless of immigration status, to receive the COVID-19 vaccine once eligible under local distribution guidelines.”

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