A leading Latino civil rights organization is calling on Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.) to resign over remarks this month in which she said that Hispanics are “good workers” but implied that they are not Americans.
Thomas A. Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said in a statement Tuesday that Lesko’s recent remarks “reflect an astounding, acquired ignorance of the people in her district; they also demonstrate a willingness to engage in false bias and stereotype in order to demonize people who have been on the frontlines nationally in confronting the devastating impacts of covid-19.”
Lesko made the comment during a virtual hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee on coronavirus relief. She was speaking in favor of a Republican amendment that would have prioritized American citizens over undocumented immigrants in receiving the coronavirus vaccine, according to the Arizona Republic.
“What I’m saying is, this is just amazing to me,” Lesko said during the hearing. “I don’t understand it, quite frankly. Arizona is a border state. We’re compassionate people, too. We have a lot of different varieties of people that live here. It’s very diverse. I worked with people that are Hispanic. I mean, they’re very good workers. You know, we’re compassionate people, but for goodness’ sakes, we have to take care of American citizens or people that are here legally first.”
She added: “I’m just not going to be able to explain to my senior citizens that we’re giving away the vaccines to people that aren’t here [legally]. I just think that’s totally wrong.”
The Biden administration and public health experts say anything that discourages the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States from seeking vaccination — such as tightly enforced demands for proof of residency or legal status — would be self-defeating as the nation tries to reach herd immunity.
“It is a moral and public health imperative to ensure that all individuals residing in the United States have access to the vaccine,” the Department of Homeland Security said in a statement this month. “DHS encourages all individuals, regardless of immigration status, to receive the COVID-19 vaccine once eligible under local distribution guidelines.”
A Lesko spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday. In a statement to the Arizona Republic last week, Lesko defended her remarks and declined to retract them, although she acknowledged that they “could be misinterpreted.”
“Taken in context, my remarks clearly were aimed at ensuring that seniors receive taxpayer-funded vaccines before illegal immigrants,” she said in the statement. “During debate on the amendment, after being interrupted several times, I said something that could be misinterpreted, but it certainly was not my intent.”
Saenz, the president of MALDEF, noted Tuesday that more than 20 percent of Lesko’s constituents are Latino, according to census estimates, and that more than 90 percent of those Latino constituents are U.S. citizens.
“Yet, she felt it appropriate to conflate ‘Hispanic’ with ‘undocumented’ in an appalling display of the worst impulses of reductionist racial stereotyping,” Saenz said.
He called Lesko’s “good workers” remark “a coded acceptance of the exploitation of Latino and immigrant workers,” including the “dehumanizing and cruel” denial of lifesaving vaccines.
“After four years of Donald Trump and his transparent white nationalism, the nation should recognize that ‘citizen first’ policies are simply thinly-veiled pleas for perpetuating white privilege grounded in racism,” Saenz said, adding that Lesko “should resign in favor of someone who will speak for all Arizonans.”