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US may waive HIV travel ban

But Bush's World AIDS Day announcement vague

BANNED AT THE BORDER: 'I still have reservations as to all those people who have been banned and flagged with border patrol,' says Wayne Campbell. Credit: Robin Perelle photo

Local AIDS activists say a proposal by the White House to create a categorical waiver for HIV-positive people wanting to enter the US on short-term visas is a good start, but doesn’t go far enough.

“I still have reservations as to all those people who have been banned and flagged with border patrol. I have not been able to cross the border for years because I’m flagged,” says Wayne Campbell, a volunteer with the BC Persons With AIDS Society.

About 10 years ago, Campbell was on his way to San Francisco for a vacation, when his HIV meds were discovered by American customs in his carry-on luggage. “They noted HIV drugs were there and turned me around.

“I’ve seen people turned away because of business cards. Employees of AIDS agencies have had problems getting across the border,” says Campbell.

However, Campbell says he is hopeful the proposed waiver “will change how things move from today into the future.”

“There seems to be an optimistic feel from within the community,” he notes.

On Dec 1, World AIDS Day, the White House released a statement that US President George W Bush “will direct the secretary of state to request and the secretary of homeland security to initiate a rulemaking that would propose a categorical waiver for HIV-positive people seeking to enter the United States on short-term visas.”

The US has barred HIV-positive people, travellers and potential immigrants from entering the country since 1987. Congress codified this policy in 1993, meaning an act of Congress would be required to reverse the ban completely. Waivers for short-term visits are available under the current system, but hard to come by.

The White House’s Dec 1 statement notes: “A categorical waiver would enable HIV-positive people to enter the United States for short visits through a streamlined process.”

The vague wording has some American AIDS activists wondering if the president’s proposed waiver is simply a restatement of the current rules.

“Right now we don’t know anything about it,” says Dr Nancy Ordover, assistant director of research and federal affairs with Gay Men’s Health Crisis.

“My concerns are a) there aren’t any details; and b) some of the language in the statement released. It seems like a restatement of current policy as it stands,” adds Adam Francoeur of Immigration Equality, an organization fighting for equality for queer and HIV-positive immigrants.

The US government has not released any further details on how the new waiver would work. Repeated calls to US Border Patrol were not returned by press time.

For a new rule such as this to be passed, it must first be released for public comment, giving the general public and interest groups an opportunity to provide feedback. The public has 30-60 days to comment, says Ordover.

It looks like the travel ban rule could be released for public comment in March, with the comment period ending in May, she says.

In the meantime, current waivers available for HIV-positive travellers are “very difficult to secure,” says Francoeur.

Waivers may be granted for special events. For instance, an athlete could apply for a waiver to enter the US for the Olympics. In late spring, waivers were granted to people attending a UN conference on HIV/AIDS. However, even if an applicant is successful, Francoeur says having their HIV status on record can make it tough to enter the US in the future.

Further complicating future travel for anyone obtaining a waiver under the current system is the very real possibility that their HIV-positive status will be recorded in their passport.

“It’s certainly not rare [for] HIV status [to] be noted in your passport or other travel document. Your status is then known to anyone who looks at that document,” says Francoeur, adding that this creates the potential to be harassed or persecuted in some areas of the world.

“Outing” one’s HIV status is “a trade-off” many aren’t prepared to make, says Ordover.

For HIV-positive travellers, wherever their destinations, it’s crucial to plan ahead of time and research any possible restrictions and flight plans, says Campbell.

Canadians travelling to Mexico or overseas should ensure they don’t have connecting flights in the US. Australia and most countries in Europe and South America are not problematic for pos travellers, he notes.

“The US is probably one of the more restrictive nations in the world,” he says.

Bush’s proposed waiver does not affect the US ban on potential immigrants with HIV. This presents a catch-22 for anyone seeking asylum from a country where they will be persecuted because of their HIV status. Once their HIV status is known to immigration, detention in the US can be potentially dangerous.

“We’ve had clients who were detained for months and months and months who don’t have access to regular anti-retrovirals,” says Ordover.

“Our overall concern is because this only addresses the travel ban, it doesn’t go far enough,” she adds.

Medically and economically speaking, Ordover says the ban makes no sense.

“Next year, it will be 20 years the US has kept out people with HIV and there is absolutely no rationale for it,” she concludes.