HIV Travel Ban May Die

BY PAUL SCHINDLER | Federal government policy that for more than 20 years has barred nearly all travel and immigration into the United States by HIV-positive individuals may finally be overturned if legislation working its way through the Senate is approved by both houses of Congress and signed by President George W. Bush.

In a press conference call convened on March 11 by the Human Rights Campaign, the Capitol Hill gay lobby, Massachusetts Democratic Senator John Kerry and California Representative Barbara Lee, also a Democrat, spoke confidently about the prospects for such an amendment being added to the reauthorization of PEPFAR, the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, Bush's global HIV initiative.

Kerry Senate measure may win Congress' approval, Bush signature.

According to Kerry, the HIV Non-Discrimination in Travel and Immigration Act, which he introduced in tandem with Oregon Republican Gordon Smith late last year, will be added as an amendment to the PEPFAR reauthorization legislation, with the agreement of the two ranking members of the Foreign Relations Committee, Democrat Joe Biden of Delaware, the chair, and Republican Richard Lugar of Indiana.

Kerry said that Bush administration officials have kept up with developments on the legislation and that he is confident the president would support the amendment if it arrived on his desk.

According to Allison Herwitt, HRC's legislative director, Kerry's office has assured the group that given the administration's keen interest in what it sees as one of Bush's signal foreign policy achievements, Lugar would not have signed off on the amendment if the president were not prepared to support it.

Bush first voiced a willingness to revisit the HIV ban on World AIDS Day in 2006, but according to Kerry, when the issue was turned over to the Department of Homeland Security for implementation, its proposed regulations actually represented a step backward.

Lee introduced a House version of the Kerry-Smith bill last year, but it was not incorporated into the PEPFAR reauthorization already passed by the House because of concerns that Republicans there might fight the amendment by employing a parliamentary maneuver called a motion to recommit, that would have doomed the entire bill. To sidestep that possibility, the Senate plans to pass the reauthorization with the amendment and then have the House adopt its version of the bill in conference.

The HIV ban dates to a 1987 amendment sponsored by the late North Carolina Republican and anti-gay foe Jesse Helms that directed the Public Health Service to add HIV to its list of “dangerous contagious diseases” that preclude people from entering the country. When immigration reform legislation in 1990 gave the Health Service the authority to revise its approach toward such medical conditions, it proposed ending the bar on those living with HIV. In a backlash in 1993, Congress approved a measure sponsored by Oklahoma Republican Don Nickles that codified the HIV immigration and travel ban.

The director of the Public Health Service has discretion to adjust its list of communicable diseases that preclude entry into the US based on specific epidemic conditions, but HIV is the only condition that always disqualifies a person from coming into the country. Though waivers can be granted, the conditions are onerous and usually prohibitive.

Since 1993, the International AIDS Conference has refused to hold its meetings in the US, other LGBT and human rights organizations have boycotted, and of course numerous international gay gatherings, such as the 2006 Gay Games in Chicago, have been hobbled by the ban.

As of 2007, only 12 other nations-including China, Libya, and Saudi Arabia – have similar policies on the entry of people living with HIV.