The United States finally opened its borders to HIV-positive visitors Jan 4, ending a 23-year ban.
The ban, first implemented in 1987 then codified into law by Congress in 1993, initially prevented HIV-positive from entering the US at all, and later unless granted a waiver by the Department of Homeland Security.
Martin Rooney marked the day by making a trip across the border to Washington state.
Rooney was denied entry to the US in 2007 because he lacked the necessary medical waiver then required for entry.
“I still remember the fear that was instilled in me when I was pulled over and refused entry [in 2007],” Rooney told members of his Facebook group. “I was interrogated, treated like a terrorist… photographed, fingerprinted and run through the FBI most wanted list all because I was supposed to know that I had to carry a medical waiver as a person who was HIV-positive to enter the US, even if only for a shopping trip expected to last no longer than three hours.”
Calling the ban “a decision rooted in fear rather than fact,” US president Barack Obama officially lifted it last October and gave the Department of Health and Homeland Security 60 days to enact new regulations.
Congress had authorized the White House to lift the ban in 2008 and former US president George W Bush had endorsed the proposal as part of a broader plan to combat the global HIV/AIDS epidemic, but the Department of Health and Homeland Security continued to classify HIV as a contagious disease.
In lifting the ban last October and ordering the Department to change its regulations, Obama said his administration was just “finishing the job.”
“Twenty-two years ago, in a decision rooted in fear rather than fact, the United States instituted a travel ban on entry into the country for people living with HIV/AIDS,” Obama said right before he signed the bill on Oct 30, 2009.
“Now, we talk about reducing the stigma of this disease – yet we’ve treated a visitor living with it as a threat. We lead the world when it comes to helping stem the AIDS pandemic – yet we are one of only a dozen countries that still bar people from HIV from entering our own country,” he said.
“If we want to be the global leader in combating HIV/AIDS, we need to act like it. And that’s why on Monday [Nov 2] my administration will publish a final rule that eliminates the travel ban effective just after the New Year. Congress and President Bush began this process last year, and they ought to be commended for it. We are finishing the job.”
“It is absolutely amazing,” says Rooney. “I have my travel rights back.”
“As of Jan 4, HIV is not a factor for inadmissibility into the US,” confirms Joanne Ferreira, a spokesperson for US Customs and Border Protection.
Rooney wasted no time crossing the border on Jan 4. While he endured some interrogation, it was nothing like what he had experienced prior to the ban’s elimination, he says. “[The experience] was very friendly and very comfortable.”
With the travel ban now lifted, Rooney expects there will still be some minor setbacks, adding it may take some time to eliminate HIV-positive people “from the books” and overhaul certain “bureaucratic red tape.”
And while HIV-positive Canadians can now enter the US, Rooney wonders if the same welcome will be extended to international travellers.
Rooney says he has spoken to HIV-positive people in the UK and mainland Europe who say they’re still being told by their embassies that a medical waiver is required for travel to the US. Others, says Rooney, say they’re still required to declare their HIV status on an online visa application prior to being granted entrance into the US.
Ferreira says she is looking into whether the ban’s elimination will eradicate previous lists of HIV-positive travellers denied entry to the US.