President Obama on Friday announced the end of a 22-year ban on travel to the United States by people who had tested positive for the virus that causes AIDS, fulfilling a promise he made to gay advocates and acting to eliminate a restriction he said was “rooted in fear rather than fact.”
At a White House ceremony, Mr. Obama announced that a rule canceling the ban would be published on Monday and would take effect after a routine 60-day waiting period. The president had promised to end the ban before the end of the year.
“If we want to be a global leader in combating H.I.V./AIDS, we need to act like it,” Mr. Obama said. “Now, we talk about reducing the stigma of this disease, yet we’ve treated a visitor living with it as a threat.”
The United States is one of only about a dozen countries that bar people who have H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS.
President George W. Bush started the process last year when he signed legislation, passed by Congress in July 2008, that repealed the statute on which the ban was based. But the ban remained in effect.
It was enacted in 1987 at a time of widespread fear that H.I.V. could be transmitted by physical or respiratory contact. The ban was further strengthened by Congress in 1993 as an amendment offered by Senator Jesse Helms, Republican of North Carolina.
I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that many people weren’t even aware that the ban existed at all. I remember precisely when I learned about it: when we applied for my husband’s U.S. visa in 2005. As a part of the process, he had to get tested for HIV — with the stipulation that if he tested positive, his application would be denied (and exorbitant application fee not refunded). I was horrified and sickened at the time I saw the information on those papers. I’m sickened and horrified still thinking about it now. The policy was discriminatory on its face against a group that is already incredibly marginalized and vilified still to this day. And it’s particularly laughable that a country that funds and promotes abstinence-only education would then treat keeping HIV-positive travelers and immigrants out of the country as some sort of “prevention” method.
In addition to being discriminatory against people living with HIV in general, it also had a particularly profound effect on other specific marginalized populations. These include, but I’m sure are not limited to, those individuals and families who come from nations with particularly high infection rates (often exacerbated by our own international HIV policy!), and the gay community:
In practice, the ban particularly affected tourists and gay men. Waivers were available, but the procedure for tourists and other short-term visitors who were H.I.V. positive was so complicated that many concluded it was not worth it.
For foreigners hoping to immigrate, waivers were available for people who were in a heterosexual marriage, but not for gay couples. Gay advocates said the ban had led to painful separations in families with H.I.V.-positive members that came to live in this country, and had discouraged adoptions of children with the virus.
Gay advocates said the ban also discouraged travelers and some foreigners already living in the United States from seeking testing and medical care for H.I.V. infection.
Stigma, shaming and fear-mongering are not the ways to prevent new HIV infections. This ban was merely another method for exerting privilege and keeping yet more “undesirables” from immigrating. The repeal is hardly a dent in the vast problems with both our nation’s immigration policy and HIV policy, but it was an utterly appalling rule that I couldn’t be more thrilled to see go.
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