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Nebraska Governor Wrongly Says Undocumented Meatpacking Workers Can’t Get Vaccine

Not only was Gov. Pete Ricketts incorrect, he also demonstrated abhorrent prejudice

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts (R).
Photo: MIKE THEILER/AFP via Getty Images

In a one-two punch display of head-in-the-sand denial and xenophobic prejudice, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts repeatedly and falsely insisted in a Monday briefing that a) undocumented immigrants do not work in meatpacking plants, therefore b) they will not be eligible for COVID-19 vaccination with other meatpacking workers, ignoring the facts that a) yes they do, and b) not vaccinating a large chunk of the state’s essential workers because of immigration status is both deeply unwise and damningly unethical.

“You’re supposed to be a legal resident of the country to be able to be working in those [meatpacking] plants, so I do not expect that illegal immigrants will be part of the vaccine with that program,” were Ricketts’ exact words during the briefing, in response to a question from the press.

Facing follow-up questions from reporters, he repeated: “If you’re working in the plants, you’re supposed to be here legally. So to get the vaccination, you gotta be working here legally to be able to be part of the food processing program.”

The Migration Policy Institute estimates that about 66 percent of Nebraska’s meatpacking workers are immigrants, and the number of undocumented immigrants at some plants range from 14 percent to the majority, the Associated Press reports.

Meat processing plants, which were deemed essential and instructed to remain open per an executive order in April, have been hit hard by coronavirus outbreaks. As of January 4, there have been at least 45,000 reported positive cases of COVID-19 and 239 reported deaths linked to meat and poultry processing facilities in the country, according to the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.

The CDC recommends that food production and agriculture workers, as well as other frontline frontline essential workers, be next in line for vaccination, along with people ages 75 and older, following phase 1a’s health care personnel and nursing home residents. But state and local health officials have the discretion to set their own vaccine rollout phases. In Nebraska, vaccination of food processing workers will come after that of people ages 75 and older.

Following Ricketts’ remarks, which went viral on Twitter, Taylor Gage, the governor’s communications director, clarified that “the federal government is expected to eventually make enough vaccine available for everyone in the country,” but Nebraska is prioritizing citizens and legal residents ahead of undocumented immigrants.

“This virus isn’t discriminating based on immigration status,” activist and organizer Dulce Castañeda told the Washington Post. “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?”

Can a nation that has botched COVID-19 containment and vaccination on astronomical levels really afford to be so picky with who gets the vaccine? At this point, states should be vaccinating anyone and everyone, fast, not least of all the people whose labor has kept this country running at great risk to themselves.