3 min

US Congress lifts HIV travel ban

President Bush could sign bill into law this week

The US Senate and the House of Representatives have repealed a ban prohibiting HIV-positive visitors and immigrants from entering the US. Despite cause for celebration, supporters say HIV-positive Canadians shouldn’t flock to the border just yet.

“We’re delighted. It is an important step in a two-step process,” says Rachel Tivens, executive director of US Immigration Equality. “Unfortunately it is not a done deal, but we are very optimistic.”

On Jul 16, the Senate approved the President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) — a multi-billion dollar plan to fight HIV/AIDS worldwide — by a vote of 80 to 16. Earlier this year, Democratic Senator John Kerry and Republican Senator Gordon Smith amended PEPFAR to include a repeal of the HIV travel ban.

The Senate passed PEPFAR with the amendment intact.

The House of Representatives followed suit on Jul 24, in a 303-115 vote.

As Xtra West goes to press, it is expected that President George W Bush will sign PEPFAR into law on Jul 30.

If passed, PEPFAR’s Kerry-Smith amendment will repeal the provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act that have barred HIV-positive people from entering the US since 1993.

Since last year, some HIV-positive travellers have been eligible for short-term waivers to enter the US, provided they brought all the HIV meds they’d need for the duration of their trip, proved they have medical insurance accepted in the US, and proved they wouldn’t engage in behaviour that might put the American public at risk. Critics say the waivers are too restrictive, can take months to obtain and forever brand HIV-positive travellers’ passports with their serostatus.

“I might as well have had an AIDS ribbon tattooed on my forehead,” says Martin Rooney, who organized a protest against the waiver system and in support of the Kerry-Smith amendment in March.

Rooney, who was turned away at the border last fall, says he was treated like a common criminal.

After three hours of interrogation, being searched by guards wearing latex gloves and finally scanned against the FBI’s most wanted list, Rooney was denied entry to the US and sent back to his Surrey home. Since his ordeal, Rooney has joined forces with local and US organizations to squash the travel ban.

Rooney hailed PEPFAR’s passage through Congress. He is confident that Bush will sign the bill into law.

“Bush will remove his personal feelings from this because he needs some sort of legacy,” Rooney predicts.

“Today we are one step closer to ending a discriminatory practice that stigmatizes all those living with HIV, squanders our moral authority, and sets us back in the fight against AIDS,” Senator Kerry said in a statement.

“While we have come a long way from the stigma, fear-mongering and intolerance of the ’80s against those living with HIV/AIDS, discrimination continues. Under current policy, our government still treats individuals with HIV/AIDS as modern day lepers, categorically banning these individuals from entering into the US. To fully embrace our global leadership on HIV/AIDS, we must remove our unwelcome mat and overturn this ridiculous ban,” added Senator Smith in a Jul 16 press release.

“We applaud the Senate for rejecting this unjust and sweeping policy that deems HIV-positive individuals inadmissible to the United States,” responded Human Rights Campaign president Joe Solmonese in a statement of his own.

“We call on the leaders of the House and Senate to retain the Kerry-Smith provision in conference and ensure it is included in the final legislation sent to the President’s desk.”

“It’s certainly a movement forward,” says Rick Marchand, managing director of the Community Based Research Centre (CBRC) in Vancouver.

“Putting [the repeal] in place may mean that other countries will do that as well,” Marchand adds.

Only 12 other counties worldwide have similar bans. They include: Armenia, Iraq, South Korea, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan and, until recently, China.

“It must have put the US in an embarrassing situation to even have China lifting the ban,” quips Marchand.

“We’re hoping for a complete lift and I’m not exactly sure that’s going to happen at this point,” says Glyn Townson, chair of the BC Persons with AIDS Society.

Townson says he is “cautiously optimistic of these changes” but is still concerned about what will happen to HIV-positive travellers’ medical and personal records collected by border guards to date.

“Homeland Security is a huge beast. It really has its own identity and has taken on its own life,” he says.

Despite repeated efforts from Xtra West, no one at the US State Department or the Department of Homeland Security was available for comment.

Brian Moulton, also of the Human Rights Campaign, says the ban’s repeal means Congress will no longer support keeping HIV on the US Department of Health and Human Services’ “list of communicable diseases of public significance.”

While Congress may be able to lift the statutory ban as early as this week at the legislative level, HIV-positive travellers will still likely be required to present waivers at the border until the US Department of Health officially removes HIV from its list, he says.

Moulton estimates it could take months before the Department of Health amends its list, but says he will work with the Department and with Congress to make the necessary changes as quickly as possible.

No one at the Department of Health was available to answer Xtra West’s questions prior to press time. Congressional repeal of the HIV ban comes three weeks following the death of the HIV travel ban’s initiator, Republican Senator Jesse Helms.