Restriction was enacted in 1987 at height of AIDS hysteria
A bipartisan effort to repeal U.S. travel restrictions on persons who are HIV-positive is moving forward in the Senate. The language amendment has been added to legislation reauthorizing the President’s Emergency Program for AIDS Relief.
The effort is being led by Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry and Oregon Republican Gordon Smith, who introduced a similar stand alone repeal bill last December. The current legislation passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday, March 13.
The travel restrictions were first imposed in 1987, at the height of AIDS hysteria, by then-Sen. Jesse Helms, a Republican from North Carolina known for his anti-gay stances on a variety of issues throughout his tenure in Congress.
The arch-conservative inserted language into a bill that directed the Secretary of Health and Human Services to add HIV to the list of medical conditions barring immigrants and visitors to the United States.
The Department of Health and Human Services sought to loosen the restriction in the early 1990s, but Congress took the opposite tack, writing the ban into immigration law. It is the only disease specifically mentioned in that statute.
President George W. Bush has acknowledged that the provision is counterproductive. On World AIDS Day 2006, he said he would modify administration of the law to make it easier for persons to get a waiver to enter the country.
But the alternatives that the Department of Homeland Security proposed were even worse.
In the conference call with reporters on Tuesday, Kerry said, "The Senate language [reauthorizing PEPFAR], right now, has this provision in it."
He anticipates that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will approve it as written.
The ban "prohibited people from traveling to the U.N. or to conferences to discuss the issue," while the existing waiver option "is very restrictive, resulting in a lot of unintended consequences."
"This is long overdue in terms of how we can repeal an outdated and misguided provision" in the immigration act, Kerry said.
U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, a California Democrat, introduced similar repeal legislation in the House last August. She made a strategic decision against introducing it as an amendment to PEPFAR in the House because she was "concerned with a possible motion to recommit" the entire bill by members seeking to stall it.
"There is no public health rationale for continuing this travel and immigration ban," Lee said. "It has not been shown to reduce the transmission of HIV/AIDS, nor has it provided any real economic benefit to the United States."
Lee said it is "pretty shameful" that the U.S. is one of only a dozen other, primarily authoritarian, countries with such a travel ban in place.
The International AIDS Conference has boycotted the U.S. since the ban was impose, and Lee said she looks forward to the conference returning to the this country "so that our own communities can benefit from the deliberation and the contacts made at these conferences."
The Bush administration does not oppose repeal of the travel ban.
Last month the State Department lifted its blanket restrictions on hiring people who are HIV-positive to be diplomats. It will now consider HIV the same as other medical conditions and evaluate candidates on their overall health and availability to serve worldwide.
Human Rights Campaign president Joe Solmonese called the effort "a tribute to the hard work and leadership of our champions in Congress."
He said the policy is "without a sound public health and medical rationale."
Pundit Andrew Sullivan has been a leading voice in calling attention to unfairness of the travel ban. On March 10, he wrote on his blog, "A critical factor in treating HIV and AIDS is reducing the stigma of the disease. How can the U.S. do what it’s doing and remain a beacon for that stigma in the world community? It’s long past time that this formal government discrimination against people with HIV be brought to an end."
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 14, 2008