After Sebastian Araujo’s parents spent a week on a waitlist for leftover Covid-19 vaccines, the family was relieved when the pharmacy called to let him know that two spots had opened up.
On Saturday, the trio showed up for their appointments at a Rite Aid in Mission Hills, California, a suburb outside of Los Angeles, but Sebastian’s mom, Graciela, 55, was turned away when she couldn’t provide a state-issued ID or a social security number because she is an undocumented immigrant, he told CNN. Graciela did provide a Matrícula Consular, Mexico’s consular ID, but it didn’t suffice, Araujo said.
Both the Biden administration and the Department of Homeland Security have openly said that undocumented immigrants should get coronavirus vaccines regardless of immigration status, adding that federal authorities won’t conduct immigration enforcement operations at vaccine distribution sites or clinics.
“In such an unprecedented roll-out, there are going to be opportunities to improve, and we’re seeking those opportunities every day,” Chris Savarese, Rite Aid director of public relations, told CNN in a statement Tuesday. “In this instance, we made a mistake.”
“When a customer arrives for their vaccine appointment, we ask for identification to confirm the customer’s appointment,” Savarese said. “In the case where a customer does not have identification, we advise our associates not to turn the customer away.”
Rite Aid’s website says regardless of insurance or Medicare status, they require that you bring a photo ID with you to speed up the appointment. It also says “you will not be turned away if you do not have a photo ID or insurance.”
“I’m very, very concerned,” Dr. Ranit Mishori, senior medical adviser for Physicians for Human Rights, told CNN in December. “If we are as a country to achieve herd immunity, that means non-citizens who live among us have to be immunized.”
Many undocumented immigrants live in communities that have already been hit disproportionately hard by the coronavirus, and many have a higher risk for exposure because they’re essential workers on the front lines, Mishori said.
Graciela and Alfredo Araujo work in a flea market in San Clarita, but were unemployed from December to March. The pandemic has taken its toll on the family financially. Luckily, Sebastian said his two older brothers have been helping his parents out and Graciela’s second job cleaning homes has carried them this far. Getting the Covid-19 vaccine would bring the family some peace of mind as they try to earn a living, Sebastian said.
Advocates say some immigrants are skeptical of any government-led vaccination efforts after years of being targeted during the Trump administration, though Sebastian said for his family, it was quite the opposite, knowing that there was nothing that said they couldn’t get vaccinated because of their immigration status.
Sebastian, 20, was vaccinated in January and qualified early on because of the work he does with the community. His dad, Alfredo, 60, was able to get the vaccine after showing the pharmacist his California ID, Sebastian said.
“Honestly, this policy is xenophobic, he said. “Maybe they just weren’t aware of it but I think they should know that not everyone has a social security number and not everyone has medical insurance. All they needed was to literally identify the person, that’s all they needed … they don’t need a social security number to track a person.”
Sebastian stayed with his mom because he said she couldn’t stop crying about what had happened.
“My mom was very angry because the pharmacy tech was saying you’re not going to get vaccinated pretty much in front of everyone and people were just kind of listening,” Sebastian said.
But mistake or not, Sebastian said his family’s experience on Saturday was stressful and created anxiety for the family.
“It sucks that we still have this mentality that oh because you’re not from within these borders that have been established, you don’t deserve this shot, a Covid vaccine.”
After Rite Aid reached out to Sebastian and his family on Tuesday evening to apologize and reschedule his mom’s first dose appointment, the family went to another Rite Aid location where Graciela was successfully vaccinated.
“We accepted their apology but we’re not just going to sit and watch the disparities continue to happen,” he said. “Me and my mom are going to continue to speak out about this issue.”
Savarese said Rite Aid does ask for ID online when making a vaccine appointment but don’t turn people away if they can’t provide it.
“This had nothing to do with immigration but rather confusion,” Savarese said.
But what happened to Graciela isn’t unique, Sebastian said.
“We’ve received a vast amount of messages from people who have had the same experiences with other pharmacies and other states,” he wrote in an Instagram post Tuesday. “It is evident that our country is doing the bare minimum to protect immigrants during this pandemic.”
Sebastian said he’s open to working with politicians on making sure that this doesn’t happen to any other undocumented immigrants.
“It’s happening in Texas, it’s happening in Kentucky and it happened in Los Angeles, a place where I didn’t think it was going to happen,” he said. “Hopefully there can be some sort of bill put forward or something in general because I think that people are getting away with this.”