British Columbia

Deportation fears keeping undocumented migrants away from vaccine clinics, advocates say

Advocates say creating culturally appropriate clinics with trusted migrant organizations would reduce vaccine hesitancy among undocumented migrants.

Clinics operated by trusted migrant organizations expected to reduce vaccine hesitancy

Advocate Byron Cruz says the trust that grassroots organizations have built with undocumented migrants could lead to vaccinating thousands who haven't sought the shot because they lack proper identification and fear their information will be shared with immigration services. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Rita and Robert wanted a better life for their son and daughter when they left their impoverished town in central Mexico three years ago and headed to Vancouver.

The married couple found work in construction, the kids headed to school and the family began to feel settled in their new Canadian home.

But as undocumented migrants, Rita and Robert live with the uncertainty that comes with not having the paperwork to live and work in Canada legally. That uncertainty increased when the pandemic was declared last year — and again when the vaccination rollout began. 

They're among thousands of undocumented migrants living and working in Metro Vancouver for whom getting a COVID-19 vaccine feels risky. 

Proof of residency — a utility bill, for instance — must be shown to get a shot.

But many undocumented migrants are uncomfortable handing over their address to authorities, out of fear it could be the first step to being found out and deported. Fear of deportation could mean thousands of undocumented migrants avoid getting vaccinated, say advocates. 

Rita, Robert and their two children are one of many undocumented migrants who live in Vancouver. They fear a vaccination centre would share their information with immigration officials. (Submitted by Rita and Robert)

But if vaccine clinics were operated by trusted migrant organizations, it would reduce that hesitancy.

"That is the only way that we can be sure that people who have precarious immigration status can get the vaccine, because they're afraid, right?" said Byron Cruz, an advocate with Sanctuary Health, a grassroots group that provides support to refugees and migrants regardless of their status.

"If my organization or other migrant organizations put together the clinic, definitely people will attend those clinics."

More than 10,000 undocumented migrants live in Metro Vancouver, according to Cruz.

Cruz estimates that 25 per cent of the people he knows in the undocumented community have been affected by COVID-19, whether that was getting sick or losing work. 

"These were people who during the COVID-19 time, they couldn't receive any support from the government," he said.

Lisa and her family are undocumented migrants from Mexico who live and work in Vancouver. The family was vaccinated against COVID-19 through an initiative at an organization where Lisa volunteers. (Ben Nelms/CBC )

Rita and Robert — whose names CBC News agreed to change to protect the family's identity — are keen to get vaccinated, even though they've already had COVID-19 and recovered. 

If they were confident their information wouldn't be shared with immigration authorities, "without any thought [we] will go because [we] know it's essential to have that shot," Rita said through an interpreter. 

"[But we] don't have the information. [We] don't know where to go."

The Migrants Rights Network, a national advocacy group, has lobbied the federal and provincial governments about vaccinating the undocumented. 

It wants assurances that information will not be shared with other agencies, and for officials to work with advocates to create culturally appropriate vaccination clinics.

Spokesperson says CBSA doesn't use medical data to track people

A Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) spokesperson emailed CBC news to say the agency "does not use medical information to track or find individuals who may be subject to removal.

"Vaccination and health information falls under provincial and territorial jurisdiction," said spokesperson Rebecca Purdy in the email to CBC news on Tuesday, a day after this story was originally published.

Lisa, her husband and child came to Vancouver from Mexico six years ago. They stayed after their student visas expired rather than return home, where they feared escalating drug cartel violence.

Cruz says more than 25 per cent of the undocumented people he knows have been affected by COVID-19. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Lisa's husband worked as a building tradesperson and she volunteered with the immigrant support group Watari, which is how she and her family — now including a second child — got vaccinated.

Watari was among the organizations taking part in a vaccination effort in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

If it weren't for this, Lisa — whose name has also been changed to protect her identity — said she wouldn't know where to start to get vaccinated.

But she says she didn't want to go to a clinic in case she was asked to provide her B.C. medical services plan (MSP) number. 

"Once they know I don't have it, they will start asking … it's very scary. I don't know if they are connected with immigration or not — I don't know what will happen," she said. 

In an email to the CBC, Marielle Tounsi, a media relations person with B.C.'s Ministry of Health, said everyone has access to vaccinations regardless of citizenship, and that an MSP number isn't required. Tounsi said information provided to officials "won't be shared beyond its intended purpose."

But Tounsi stopped short of saying the province will create special clinics for undocumented people.

Instead, the province will work on "planning immunization programs with immigration and refugee departments, providing culturally appropriate educational materials in multiple languages, and having translators available in clinics."


Wawmeesh Hamilton

Indigenous Affairs Reporter

Wawmeesh Hamilton is an award winning Indigenous affairs reporter with CBC Vancouver. He reports on Indigenous people, communities and issues in B.C. and across Canada. His work about Indigenous people and reconciliation has also been published on CBC the National, CBC Radio, CBC Online and CBC Indigenous. His radio documentary Not Alone (CBC The Current) won the 2020 Jack Webster Award for best feature and enterprise reporting. Wawmeesh is a graduate of the UBC Graduate School of Journalism (2016). He lives in Vancouver and is a member of the Hupacasath First Nation in Port Alberni, B.C.