July 2, 2009
Could the U.S. finally be on the verge of eliminating its ban on HIV-positive visitors? The U.S. government has formally begun the process of removing HIV from an official list of communicable diseases that you're not allowed to have if you want to enter the U.S., whether it's as a visitor or an immigrant.
It's still likely to be months before the so-called "HIV travel ban" is completely off the books. However, it looks like the sun has finally begun to set on a rule that many in the HIV community feel is an embarrassment."
The U.S. HIV travel ban has been on the books since 1987, but has been strongly opposed for many years. The issue was brought back to forefront on World AIDS Day in 2006 when former U.S. President George W. Bush promised to issue an executive order removing a requirement that HIV-positive people from other countries apply for a special waiver before they could receive short-term visas. Unfortunately, that executive order never actually happened. But in July 2008, Bush did sign a law that lifted some HIV-related travel restrictions.
Which brings us to the latest developments in this story. The U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) recently told the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) that it was OK to move forward with proposing the removal of HIV from a list of "communicable disease[s] of public health significance" that make non-citizens of the U.S. ineligible for entry into the country.
If you think that sentence was confusing to read, welcome to the dizzying rules of U.S. government lawmaking. Here is the sequence of events that now has to unfold, as reported by Advocate.com:
Piece of cake, right? One immigration activist -- Steve Ralls, the communications director for Immigration Equality -- was quoted as saying he hopes the new rule will take effect by the end of the year. That may or may not be in time for the International AIDS Society (IAS) to decide whether the U.S. should play host to an International AIDS Conference, the world's largest meeting of HIV researchers and activists, for the first time in two decades. (Just last month, IAS suggested it would hold its 2012 conference in Washington, D.C., provided the ban were lifted.)
Although it will take some time for the gears of government to grind out the rule change, advocates and activist groups have expressed happiness that it's in the works. "We are thrilled to hear that these proposed rules will be published," said Scott Schoettes, the HIV Project Staff Attorney as Lambda Legal, in a statement. The new rule would "once and for all eliminate the regulation that has prevented people living with HIV from visiting and immigrating to this country," he said.
The Human Rights Campaign echoed the sentiment: "This regulation is unnecessary, ineffective and lacks any public health justification," said the organization's president, Joe Solmonese. "We are confident that this sad chapter in our nation's treatment of people with HIV and AIDS will soon be closed."
In the meantime, however, we can perhaps expect to see more of the events that happened this spring. In May, as many as 60 HIV-positive Canadians were refused U.S. entry for an HIV housing summit unless they completed a long, rigorous and expensive visa approval process. (They ended up not completing the process after they determined there was no way they could carry out all of the requirements before the summit took place.)
And in June, HIV-positive British activist Paul Thorn, a project director of the Tuberculosis Survival Project, was scheduled to speak at the Pacific Health Summit in Seattle, Wash. Thorn said he was denied a U.S. visa because he revealed that he is HIV positive.
When the rule change is complete, only eight countries will remain in the world that ban visits by HIV-positive foreigners. Brunei, China, Oman, Qatar, South Korea, Sudan, United Arab Emirates and Yemen currently stand alongside the U.S. on that list, according to the International AIDS Society.