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Rally held to protest US HIV ban

Bill to end the ban hailed as 'major step' forward

BANNED AT THE BORDER. There's no place for public policy 'based on stigma and wrong information and prejudice and fear,' says NDP MP Bill Siksay (pictured left) Credit: Nathaniel Christopher photo

About two dozen people gathered at the Vancouver Art Gallery Mar 16 to protest the US ban on HIV-positive travellers, and to support a bill now making its way through the US Senate to repeal the ban.

Martin Rooney organized the protest after he was fingerprinted, interrogated and eventually turned back at the border last November.

“We were hauled into immigration,” he told protesters. “I was fingerprinted, photographed, run through the FBI Most Wanted List and, two and half hours later, sent home. I have never felt more violated in my life.”

The US has barred HIV-positive travellers and potential immigrants from entering the country since 1987, when the ban was first proposed by Senator Jesse Helms. A new policy introduced by President George Bush in 2006 led to a proposed waiver which would allow some HIV-positive people to visit the US temporarily — provided they bring all the HIV meds they’ll need for their stay, prove they have medical insurance accepted in the US, and promise not to engage in behaviour that could put the American public at risk.

Not good enough, says California Democrat Barbara Lee, who introduced the HIV Non-Discrimination in Travel and Immigration Act in the US House of Representatives last August. The bill was later introduced in the US Senate by Democrat John Kerry and Republican George Smith. A Senate committee approved the bill Mar 10; it now goes before the full Senate.

“The attempts to fix this law through a complex waiver system, while admirable, still don’t do anything to rectify the discriminatory underlying problem,” Kerry explained last December when he co-introduced the Senate bill.

Gay activists in the US hailed the bill’s advance through the Senate.

“We appreciate the support by the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and now urge the full Senate to repeal this unjust and sweeping policy that deems HIV-positive individuals inadmissible to the United States,” says Human Rights Campaign president Joe Solmonese. “There remains no public health rationale for treating HIV more harshly than other communicable diseases.”

“On this topic there’s no place in public policy for policy that’s based on stigma and wrong information and prejudice and fear,” agrees NDP MP Bill Siksay. “And that’s what we have with this travel ban for folks here who are living with HIV and AIDS.

“The United States has some questionable allies when it comes to promulgating this kind of policy,” the Burnaby-Douglas MP told the protest. “The countries that maintain this policy are not the leaders in progressive and appropriate policies around the world.”

The US is one of only 13 countries around the world with an HIV ban. The others are: Armenia, Brunei, China, Iraq, Qatar, South Korea, Libya, Moldova, Oman, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan.

Vancouver Centre MP Hedy Fry also denounced the ban, saying it defies any logic and reason.

“AIDS is not a communicable disease based on walking down the streets, like TB is for instance. You cannot sneeze and get it. You cannot touch someone and give it to them. If you spit on the street nothing happens. It’s very interesting if you looked at this from a purely medical perspective,” she told the protest. “It just doesn’t make sense, it’s discriminatory.”

A similar ban would never be accepted in Canada, she said. “That kind of thing would have a Charter challenge right away because in our Charter you’re not allowed to discriminate against anyone based on sexual orientation.”

Helen Kennedy has less faith in the Charter under the current Conservative government. “Now more than ever we have to be vigilant in fighting for our rights and maintaining those rights that we have fought so hard to get over centuries and decades,” the executive director of Egale warned the protest.

NDP MP Penny Priddy, who represents Rooney’s home riding of Surrey North, was also on hand to support the bill to repeal the ban, but points out the battle is far from over.

“There’s a piece of legislation in front of the United States Congress; it is the first step and not the last. Because I have no doubt that it could go through every single step and if it ends up on President Bush’s desk it’ll be vetoed with a presidential veto.”

Nicole Murray-Ramirez, a city commissioner for San Diego and Queen Mother of the Americas for the Imperial Court System, apologised for the US government.

“As an American and a Christian I wish to sincerely apologise to my Christian brother Martin Rooney for being denied entry to my country. I wish to apologise as an American citizen to all Canadians who have been denied entry to my country.”

Murray-Ramirez reminded the crowd that despite the US government’s stance, many people within the US oppose the ban.

The US-based organization Immigration Equality hailed the Kerry-Smith bill as the “first major step in 15 years” to repeal the ban on HIV-positive travellers.

“We are confident that this vote by the full Senate will be successful and will move the United States one step closer to lifting the HIV immigration ban,” says Immigration Equality’s legal director, Victoria Neilson.