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'Reeks of racism': Latinos blast Ariz. Republican who said vaccinate Americans before Hispanics

"She will continue to assure the media we are only misconstruing her nativism and white supremacy for racism," state Sen. Juan Mendez said about Rep. Debbie Lesko.

A Republican congresswoman from Arizona is drawing backlash for saying that Hispanics are "good workers," but that "American citizens" should be vaccinated first, stirring a divisive debate on immigration amid the pandemic.

During a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing last week, Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz., said: "I worked with people that are Hispanic. I mean they're very good workers. ...We're compassionate people, but for goodness sakes, we have to take care of American citizens, or people that are here legally, first."

“I'm just not going to be able to explain to my senior citizens that we're giving away the vaccines to people that (are) here illegally," Lesko said. "I just think that's totally wrong."

Almost 32 percent of Arizona's population is Latino. At the same time, fewer than 4 percent of people in the state are undocumented, according to the Pew Research Center.

Arizona is already prioritizing senior citizens, health care workers and other critical care workers for vaccination.

"It reeks of racism," state Sen. Martin Quezada, as Democrat whose district overlaps with Lesko’s, said of Lesko's remarks. "There are a lot of people of color in her district and for her to be disconnected and really that offensive about how she sees us, as nothing more than good workers and not entitled to equitable vaccine distribution."

Lesko's comments came as the committee was discussing a Covid-19 relief bill. A Republican amendment would have prioritized American citizens for vaccines. Democrats argued that essential workers across the country include undocumented immigrants, so keeping them from being vaccinated wouldn't help slow the spread of the virus. The amendment did not pass.

Lesko said in a statement to several news outlets that what she said was something "that could be misinterpreted," but she doubled down on her comments on social media, tweeting: “It’s outrageous that Democrats are prioritizing illegal immigrants over American citizens! Their Covid-19 'plan' would allow illegal immigrants to get vaccinated ahead of our nation’s seniors who are desperately waiting to get vaccinated."

"Larger epidemic of hate and ignorance"

Lesko's remarks, says Northern Arizona University political scientist Stephen Nuño, are a familiar appeal to voters by Republicans who have used immigration as a wedge issue. Lesko was a co-sponsor of Arizona's law SB1070, which allowed state law enforcement during routine traffic stops to ask about citizenship and immigration status to anyone deemed suspicious; many parts of SB 1070 have been struck down by the courts.

Amid a pandemic, "Lesko’s horrifyingly ignorant comment makes no sense from a scientific perspective — diseases do not stop spreading just because a person is undocumented," Nuño said.

Democratic state Sen. Juan Mendez served with Lesko when she was in the state Legislature.

"Since the voters of Phoenix’s west valley chose to elevate her hate and ignorance, her new position has only emboldened her to take every opportunity to disparage an entire ethnicity to drive division," Mendez said. "She is willing to condemn her district and the state to a longer and more ravaging virus just to reaffirm her racism."

A registered nurse administers the Pfizer-BioNtech COVID-19 vaccine to a person who is classed in the 1B category, which includes teachers and childcare providers, at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona, on Jan. 21, 2021.Cheney Orr / Reuters file

In Arizona, Latinos have had a higher rate of Covid-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths than non-Hispanics, yet they are lagging in vaccination rates.

"There are already so many barriers for Latino communities accessing the vaccine," Mendez said. "But Rep. Lesko seems to be hell-bent on intimidating the Latino community further by encouraging racism in our community."

The district Lesko represents is mostly urban and includes a significant Latino population, almost 173,000 out of 798,000.

"She will continue to assure the media we are only misconstruing her nativism and white supremacy for racism," Mendez said. "Unfortunately, Rep. Lesko is only a symptom of a larger epidemic of hate and ignorance.”

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