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AIDS activists say US travel requirements are ‘discriminatory, intrusive’

Special visa required to get around the US HIV travel ban

Canadian AIDS activists are denouncing requirements for HIV-positive travellers to the US as discriminatory and intrusive.

As many as 60 Canadians planning to attend this week’s North American Housing and HIV Research Summit in Washington found themselves in a bind when they were informed, 11 days before the summit was due to start, that they would not be granted an event waiver.

HIV-positive travellers to the United States still require a waiver in order to bypass the country’s HIV travel ban. While former US president George W Bush signed a bill to repeal the travel ban last year, the Department of Health and Human Services has not yet changed its regulations, thus the ban is effectively still in place.

“We applied for our [event] waiver in March and were told very clearly there would be no issue with the waiver and that we would get it,” says Ruthann Tucker, senior director of community-based initiatives at the Ontario HIV Treatment Network.

When they were informed on May 22 that the event waiver would not be granted and that they would have to individually apply through a new “streamlined” visa process, the OHTN and its partners went up to the highest levels of the State Department in order to find a solution.

“What we ended up being able to achieve, although not 100 percent, is that we got the event cited as a ‘designated event,'” says Tucker, who was concerned that personal health information might be linked to passports.
 
As a designated event, HIV-positive travellers attending the conference would be able to get their visas at the border, after paying a fee and filling out a form, which would be stamped, but not be linked to their passport or an ongoing file at the border. That $545 fee would be reimbursed by OHTN.

In Sep 2008, the Department of Homeland Security introduced what it calls a new “streamlined process” for HIV-positive travellers. It requires HIV-positive travellers to apply for a special visa at one of seven US consulates, unlike other Canadians who can travel to the US for a short time without a visa.

The previous waiver system required an HIV-positive person travelling to the US to fill out a waiver application at a US border crossing or at a pre-clearance airport, and the process would take an average of 18 days.

The new system gives consular staff the authority to grant the waiver as part of a visa application.

“When we grant these individualized waivers, no notation or indication is made on the face of the visa that the person is granted a waiver because of an HIV infection or because they suffer from AIDS,” says David Hopper, the consular general for the United States Embassy in Ottawa. “It’s transparent to anyone who is not a visa officer or a customs and border official in our Customs and Border Protection Service.”

Hopper admits that this new process is less convenient as there are only seven US consulate offices in Canada, as opposed to 140 border crossing points. He adds that by visiting the consulate with an appointment, the visa can be granted immediately for $131 dollars, as opposed to the $545 fee charged for a waiver and the average 18-day waiting period.

The old waiver process is still available at border crossings for those who wish to use that more costly and lengthy process.

Critics of the new process say that the mandatory interview and paperwork are invasive. Applicants are required to sign a form that includes statements such as:

  • I am HIV-positive and asymptomatic;
  • I have received HIV transmission prevention counselling and will engage only in safe sex activities;
  • I have enough of my medications for my condition for the entire time that I am in the US;
  • I have enough insurance to cover my hospital stay and any medical treatment required while I am in the US;
  • I will not extend my stay for any reason whatsoever.

They also allege that the consulates will only accept a money order from Scotiabank, though the consulate did not indicate this during an interview with Xtra.

“These are the travel restrictions as you see them, and they are very discriminatory, intrusive and untenable,” says Jay Koornstra, executive director of Bruce House in Ottawa. Koornstra had intended to attend the Summit, but declined to in the end.

“It’s tantamount to asking HIV-positive Canadians to identify themselves to the US, to the Department of Homeland Security, to all the officials in the United States that one is HIV-positive, and that would be like tattooing the red ribbon on one’s forehead. Under no circumstances am I willing to put my name on any US list, so effectively there is still a ban. I can’t think of any HIV-positive individual who would think of doing so.”

Tucker says there is at least one positive outcome.

“The US policy on restricting people with HIV into the country, has been raised and profiled,” he says. “That’s a good thing because it’s back on the agenda, and it seemed to have fallen off, even though they had made a commitment to removing it.”

The Department of Health and Human Services regulations that maintain the HIV travel ban are under review, and many expect them to be lifted by the end of the year.

US activists continue to press for the regulation changes, according to Trevor Thomas, deputy communications director for the Human Rights Campaign in Washington.

“We understand the complexities of the waiver process and we’ve made clear to the [Obama] administration that anything less than the full repeal of the HIV travel and immigration ban would be insufficient.”