For Martin Rooney, the lifting of the United States travel ban on HIV-positive people can’t come soon enough. He was denied entry into the US in November 2007 during a cross-border shopping trip.
“For the last year-and-a-half I have not been able to travel to coronation balls or to go shopping across the border which I did regularly,” says Rooney, who is also known as Martin Storm, Emperor I of the Imperial Sovereign Court of Surrey. “I raise awareness and money for AIDS Tijuana, and to access Tijuana you have to go through San Diego, and basically the bottom line to this is very simple — I cannot do my humanitarian work.”
The ban on HIV-positive people travelling to the US has been in place since 1993, but was overturned in legislation in July 2008 when President George W Bush signed the President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) bill into law, which contained an amendment that would strike down the ban.
The problem is that the ban remains in the Department of Health and Human Services regulations, which have existed since 1987. These regulations continue to classify HIV as a contagious disease.
“We all know 25 years later it’s not as contagious as swine flu,” says Rooney. “The borders weren’t closed because of swine flu, and they don’t restrict travel within the 50 states for HIV [positive] people, then why would they close their borders, particularly to Canada and/or Mexico which has the same strain of HIV?”
Some hoped that with the inauguration of President Barack Obama that the ban would be quickly lifted, but after waiting this long Rooney has decided to “get activist” on the cause again and has started a Facebook group titled “OBAMA Revoke the HIV Travel Ban NOW.” It’s part of his preparation for a demonstration he plans to hold in August on both sides of the border, much as he did in March 2008.
But the ban is in the process of being lifted, albeit slowly.
“A proposed rule to remove that from the regulations is, we understand now, at the Office of Management and Budget,” says Brian Moulton, senior council with the Human Rights Campaign in Washington, DC.
OMB is an office in the White House that reviews all regulations proposed by various agencies before they’re put out for public comment.
“The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention prepared the regulation, and has sent that over to OMB for their final review,” says Moulton. “They’ll make it available for some period of time for public comment — that usually varies from anywhere from 30 to 90 days — and once that review period closes, they’ll look at the comments and the rule one more time and they’ll put one final change to the regulations.”
“We’re waiting for OMB to give it the green light to go out for public comment. We don’t have a precise timeline from them when that will happen, but hopefully sometime this summer.”
Moulton does not expect the regulation to be a hotly contested issue, despite the fact that some opposition to lifting the ban remains.
“Canada opposes the practice of applying travel bans for people living with HIV/AIDS,” says a spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. “Canada has articulated its opposition to the practice of applying travel bans for people living with HIV/AIDS at board meetings of the Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. All countries, including the US, are aware of Canada’s policies and position regarding travel bans for persons with HIV/AIDS.”
Liberal Foreign Affairs critic Bob Rae says that when the rule for regulation opens for public comment, Canada’s position should be heard.
“I think a blanket ban is unreasonable — we don’t have one, and I think that we would certainly want to say with respect to that, that there are some important civil liberties issues involved there, and I don’t see any reason why there would be a blanket one.”
“There’s no foundation for that kind of regulation,” adds NDP MP Bill Siksay. “We know that there have been victories in courts, and there was a decision to move around that policy in the States, and this delay is unconscionable, as was the original policy.”
Siksay also says that he would consider submitting his position to the public comment process.
Canada does not have a similar travel ban in place.
“The general rule is that Canada has the right to refuse admission to certain classes of temporary residents and would-be immigrants with a medical condition that is a danger to public health or public safety, or which would cause an excessive demand on health or social services,” says John Norquay, an immigration lawyer with the HIV & AIDS Legal Clinic (Ontario).
“Unlike the US, Canada does not view HIV as a danger to public health or safety, unless there is some evidence that an individual has intentionally infected others or defied public health orders, for example,” adds Norquay.
For current status on the ban and its repeal process, visit: immigrationequality.org/blog/?cat=31