In secret recording, Vos says immigrant ‘culture’ was to blame for COVID-19 outbreak in Racine County

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MADISON – Assembly Speaker Robin Vos blamed the culture of immigrant populations for a coronavirus outbreak in Racine County, according to a secret recording of his meeting last month with Gov. Tony Evers.

“I know the reason at least in my region is because of a large immigrant population where it’s just a difference in culture where people are living much closer and working much closer,” the Rochester Republican said of an outbreak in Racine County. 

The Rochester Republican’s comments prompted Latino groups to call for Vos’ resignation.

“He should resign his leadership position because of his disregard for the lives of immigrants and working people,” Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of the immigrant advocacy group Voces de la Frontera, said in response. 

Vos didn’t elaborate on his views during the May 14 meeting. Evers didn’t say anything about it on the call and declined Thursday to weigh in on it once it became public.

Linda Boyle, co-president of the Racine Interfaith Coalition, on Thursday called the speaker’s comment divisive and said he should apologize.

“Most of our immigrant community are essential workers and they have no choice but to go to work,” said Boyle, whose group has worked on immigration issues in Racine County and met with Vos in the past. 

“I don’t feel this is a time for him to be pointing fingers where, at this time, racism is coming to the forefront. This appears to be a racist comment or a racist thought.”

Darryl Morin, president of Forward Latino, said Hispanic workers in Racine County are contracting the coronavirus at higher rates than others because many of them work frontline jobs that require contact with others. Like Boyle, he said an apology was in order.

“I understood it to be a rather dismissive remark that immigrants and immigrant lives aren’t as much a concern for the speaker,” Morin said.

“Here we have individuals going to work so they can provide for their families. Many of our government officials aren’t sticking up and making sure that these employers are being held accountable to provide safe working conditions.”

In an interview Thursday, Vos said he was referring to an outbreak affecting the Latino community that had just occurred in Burlington.

“There’s no need to apologize,” Vos said. “This is once again people trying to look and make something out of a conversation that was ‘how do we deal with the coronavirus?'”

Later, he wrote on Twitter, “Listen to what was said and not the sensationalist headline. Facts show communities of color are disproportionally impacted. That’s science.”

Vos made the comment about the outbreak as he and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald of Juneau talked to the Democratic governor about how the state should respond to the coronavirus crisis after the state Supreme Court struck down the Evers administration’s stay-at-home order.

The call was secretly recorded by Evers’ staff and a copy of it was released this week to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel under the state’s open records law.

Vos and Fitzgerald laced into Evers for the recording, saying he had made it impossible to trust him. Evers said Thursday he was not aware of the recording at the time.

Vos said the public should focus on the Evers administration breaking norms by recording the call and not Vos’ comment about immigrant culture.

“I’m not going to get into this when the story is actually Gov. Evers choosing to secretly record the Legislature and doing it in a way that’s never been done before,” Vos said.

Racine County has seen some of the highest levels of coronavirus cases in Wisconsin. There are 69 active investigations into COVID-19 there, including 32 at workplaces, 14 at long-term care facilities and nine at group housing sites, according to the state Department of Health Services.

Latinos are overrepresented among coronavirus victims in Racine County and elsewhere. They make up 13% of the overall population in Racine County but account for 23% of the confirmed and probable cases in the county, according to the county’s health department.

Vos spokeswoman Kit Beyer noted health experts at Duke University have said there is a higher incidence of coronavirus infections in the Latino community because many of them are essential workers or live with multiple generations. 

Cases in the county spiked at the end of May and have been falling since then. When Vos made his comment, cases were on the upswing.

There are large gaps in the information about outbreaks in Racine County. The state Department of Health Services has failed to provide data on workplace outbreaks including names of companies, the number of workers infected and the number of workers who have died. 

Ryan Westergaard, the state’s chief medical officer, said Thursday there is no biological reason for Latinos to more readily contract the coronavirus. He said the factors that make one susceptible to the illness are applicable to people of all races and ethnicities — close working conditions and not wearing masks 

Evers did not join those calling for Vos to apologize, saying he didn’t know what to say about the comment because he hadn’t listened to the recording. Evers was on the call with Vos and would have heard it in real time — a fact he did not address Thursday. 

“I have a difficult time in saying whether Vos should apologize,” Evers said.

Racine County Supervisor Fabi Maldonado called Vos’ comment racist and said he should resign. 

“It’s going to create division and it’s going to scapegoat this group of people, which is where I come from,” said Maldonado, who was born in the United States to parents who were born in Mexico.

“When he’s saying those comments, he’s talking directly to me; he’s talking to my mom; he’s talking to my dad; he’s talking to my community. It’s a pattern of nativism that’s been going on since the beginning of the country.”  

Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of Voces de la Frontera, said Vos should do more to give workers protections on the job instead of saying Hispanic culture was the cause of an outbreak.

Vos is “scapegoating and trying to appeal to racism and bigotry against immigrants in order to absolve himself of his lack of leadership,” she said.

“What he’s doing is he’s protecting big business, who has the money and doesn’t want to pay for paid sick days.”

Jenny Tasse, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, said at a news conference that Vos “unfairly, falsely blamed the immigrant community” for coronavirus outbreaks in Racine County.  

“This implication that immigrants are at fault is wrong,” Tasse said. “Our leaders cannot demonize one group when the entire community is suffering. In the Jewish community, we are all too familiar with this dangerous trope and we will not stand for it.” 

Morin said Vos’ comment was all the more problematic because he made it soon after state Supreme Court Chief Justice Patience Roggensack drew criticism for saying during oral arguments that the coronavirus had spiked in Brown County because of meatpackers and not “regular folks.”

“I think it’s very concerning and irresponsible following the comments made by Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Roggensack here just a few weeks ago that dismissed immigrants as not regular people,” Morin said

“You think he would have learned his lesson.”

Daphne Chen, Maria Perez and Andrew Mollica of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report. 

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