Senate votes to repeal HIV travel ban


The migrant-rights organization Immigration Equality scored a major victory today in ushering through the Senate a repeal of the HIV immigration and travel ban.  From Immigration Equality's press release (I'll post the link as soon as it goes up on their website) (Update: here it is):

Immigration Equality hails the Senate's vote to lift the HIV immigration and travel ban.  The Senate voted today to repeal the language that bars people with HIV/AIDS from entering the U.S., as part of the legislation reauthorizing the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).  The Senate approved PEPFAR by a vote of 80 to 16.

"Congress has finally moved to end the HIV ban - a ban based on myth and misinformation," said Rachel B. Tiven, Executive Director of Immigration Equality.  "For twenty years, the United States has barred HIV-positive travelers from entering the country even for one day.  Today the Senate said loud and clear that AIDS exceptionalism must come to an end." 

HIV is the only disease excluded by Congressional fiat; all other decisions on communicable diseases are left to the discretion of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).  The repeal provision in the PEPFAR bill will remove the anti-HIV language from the Immigration and Nationality Act, and restore the determination of whether HIV is "communicable disease of public health significance," to the discretion of HHS.

Important Update: Note that the bill has not yet become law, so the waiver requirement is still in place until it does.  From Immigration Equality's website:

The Senate's version of PEPFAR has not yet become law.  Right now, if you are HIV positive and planning to travel to the U.S. or planning to apply for legal permanent residence status you must still obtain a waiver of inadmissibility.  For more information on HIV Waivers please read this section of our website.

Second Update: It's been a while since I linked to Andrew Sullivan, but take a moment to read his moving post about what the repeal means to him (via). 

I'm not exaggerating when I say that it's one of the happiest days of my whole life. For two and a half decades, I have longed to be a citizen of the country I love and have made my home. I now can. There is no greater feeling.

And I should also note that one of the co-sponsors of the bill was Gordon Smith (R-OR), a prominent Mormon in good standing in the faith.  I hope that the era of reflexive alignment of religious conservatives with anti-gay politics is coming to an end (I say "anti-gay" on the premise that the HIV ban had its roots in animus against the LGBT community).

[End updates]

The provision was added as an amendment to the broad HIV/AIDS prevention and relief legislation, PEPFAR, that had already passed the House and will now go back to committee to be reconciled before proceeding to the president's desk.  From an AP article by Jim Abrams on the vote:

Senate changes will have to be worked out with the House. Those include a measure added to the Senate bill by Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Gordon Smith, R-Ore., that would reverse a policy that has made it difficult for HIV-positive foreigners to visit or seek residency in the United States.

Immigration Equality provides some background about the ban in its release:

In 1987, Senator Jesse Helms offered the ban as an amendment to a bill to fund availability of the antiretroviral drug Zidovudine (AZT).  The law passed almost unanimously by Congress, in part as a political trade to obtain the funds for AZT.

In April 1989, Dutch AIDS educator Hans Verhoef was jailed for several days in St. Paul, Minnesota when he tried to enter the United States to attend the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections in San Francisco.  This led to international outrage and a boycott of the conference by activists in 1990. No international conference on HIV/AIDS has been held in the United States since then.

In October 1992, the ban led to the quarantine of about one hundred HIV-positive Haitians at a U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, once again sparking outrage by the international and human rights communities.   In 1993, President Bill Clinton tried to issue an Executive Order to eliminate the ban and brought the issue into the political spotlight once more.

At the urging of Senator Helms the ban was codified by Congress in 1993, as a climate of fear about HIV and prejudice toward HIV-positive people continued.   
The policy disproportionately affect LGBT individuals since close family relationships with U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents are generally required to seek waivers and same-sex relationships are not recognized under current immigration law.

Immigration Equality has been a longtime national leader in the fight to lift the ban.  As the only national organization fighting for the rights of LGBT and HIV-positive immigrants, Immigration Equality worked to create a comprehensive plan to lift the ban that included advocacy, public education, and legal assistance.  Leading up to the vote, Immigration Equality reached out to key supporters in the Senate and worked with other allies to ensure passage.

Here's some legal analysis of the ban.  As you can see, the ban had its roots in discrimination against gays and lesbians, pure and simple.

Congratulations to Immigration Equality and everyone else who worked to make this happen!  Here's hoping the provision makes it through the rest of the process intact.

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This page contains a single entry by David Bennion published on July 17, 2008 12:02 AM.

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