President Bush signed a sweeping measure Wednesday that provides $48 billion to combat AIDS and other diseases globally and that also ends a long-standing U.S. ban on foreign visitors and immigrants who are HIV-positive.
The travel ban, approved in 1993, was seen by opponents as an anachronism from a period of hysteria surrounding gays. Its repeal, however, does not remove all U.S. travel impediments.
Activists will now turn their focus to the Department of Health and Human Services, which in 1987 placed HIV on its list of diseases barring entry into the U.S. That prohibition is separate from the congressionally imposed travel ban. But with the overarching ban by legislators repealed, federal health officials are no longer bound by law to keep HIV on the list.
“It’s hard today to put yourself back there and imagine the kind of ignorance and misinformation that was prevalent in the early 1990s,” said Rachel B. Tiven, executive director of Immigration Equality, a New York-based group that advocated repealing the ban. “People believed the most fantastical, unrealistic things about gays. Congress has finally cleared the way to reverse that series of bad decisions 20 years ago.“
It is important that we remember what brought about the United States adopting and keeping a law that put us in the same category as the following countries: Armenia, Bangladesh, Brunei, Iraq, Libya, Moldavia, Oman, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, South Korea, Sudan and the U.S. I think this trailer of the excellent Frontline series on PBS about AIDS will harken you back to the dark times, when little was known and homophobia ruled the day in dealing with an epidemic that could have been prevented from spreading had people kept their heads:
So who bravely came forward to end this legacy of ignorance?
In the Senate: John Kerry (D-MA) and Gordon Smith (R-OR)
In the House: Barbara Lee (D-CA)
The measure passed the Senate 80 – 16 (Obama and McCain did not vote, but both co-sponsored the bill), an absolute routing. But I would be telling a lie, if I didn’t say that some of the hate and ignorance remains. I came across this video made by a Ron Paul supporter that goes after John Kerry (you’ll love the “gay” pic of the Kerry/Edwards ticket shown in the video) for sponsoring this bill. This is Exhibit A of the kind of thinking that was defeated yesterday, yes, even in the Republican party:
Gotta love the “Halloween” music in there to really scare people. (Not)
Against that kind of stupidity, we have to thank all the incredible gay and AIDS activists who fought this law and so many other instances of discrimination. To them, I am in full awe of the long, long years of work you did, when it seemed like there was no hope. And yet you forged forward for The Cause. This diary is dedicated to you.
I also want to give a shout out to Andrew Sullivan, who played two roles in this fight: he used his blog to educate those of us unfamiliar with the ban and how it came about. This was also personal, since Andrew is a British citizen and HIV positive. I understand many of you disagree with his views as a conservative, but I hope you can see how important his championing of this cause was. Many in Washington DC, as in powerful people, do read his blog, as well as engaged activists like ourselves. There is no doubt that he had an influence on this outcome as well.
I’m not usually speechless but I’m ecstatic to report that the Senate just passed PEPFAR without the Sessions amendment, and Senator Biden, who managed the bill, just said they will probably avoid a conference with the House and send the bill forthwith to the president’s desk. Barring some unforeseen event, the HIV Travel Ban – a relic of the days when HIV was a source of fear and stigma and terror – is finally over.
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.
Thanks go to many, many people, chiefly Senators Kerry and Smith, who made this a bipartisan priority. Gordon Smith proved how Republicans can reach out to those in genuine need, even if some are gay. All of us with HIV and with spouses or loved ones with the virus are in his debt. But also: Rob Epplin and Alex Nunez, Smith’s and Kerry’s amazing staffers, who made this possible. The Human Rights Campaign came through too, with insistent, diligent lobbying and a last-minute member email blitz. Immigration Equality, the group that does all the heavy lifting on LGBT and HIV immigration issues, were indispensable. Thanks, Rachel and Adam in particular. A word too to Senators Lugar and Biden, who shepherded the bill forward. I’m grateful too for those behind the scenes, Democrats and Republicans, who helped enormously: Carl Schmid and Jeff Trandahl, in particular. I will not forget Yuval Levin’s support. And a word to my friend, David Kuo, who helped me through some of the bleakest days I experienced because of this law. My closest friends know who they are and they know what they’ve done.
I’ve lived with this awful sense of insecurity, of fear of leaving the country, of visiting my family, of the lingering sense that my virus rendered me potentially deportable, that any roots I put down might be dug up suddenly one day – for fifteen years. The lifting of this threat – the sense that I now have a home I know will be secure for me and my husband – is indescribable.
His words still break me up, reading them again.
Now for what is next. The HHS. The Washington Blade reports:
… as the president prepared for Wednesday’s bill signing ceremony, the White House had yet to disclose whether he and his Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, Mike Leavitt, would approve one more administrative action needed to end the U.S. ban on HIV-positive visitors and immigrants.
In 1987, HHS used its existing legal authority to add HIV to a list of communicable diseases that disqualifies HIV-positive visitors from entering the country as well as foreigners with HIV from being eligible for immigrant status.
The PEPFAR bill that Bush signed allows the 1987 administrative policy to remain in place unless HHS or one of its component agencies, such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, reverses t
An HHS spokesperson last week agreed to make inquiries into Leavitt’s position on the issue of repealing the HIV ban, but the spokesperson did not get back with additional information by press time.
A White House spokesperson did not respond to a request for the president’s position on the HHS administrative ban.
Not as encouraging as we would like. And, of course, of course, there are presidential politics involved; the choice could not be clearer as to who is a man of principle and who is just hedging his bets to placate bigots like the one who made the anti-Kerry video I posted (by a Paul supporter, no less, which tells you how absurd this hedging is):
A spokesperson for Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, said Obama opposes the ban and would take action to end it if he’s elected president.
A spokesperson for the campaign of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, did not return a call seeking McCain’s position on the issue.
And finally, Immigration Equality has some very helpful information for anyone who is a foreigner and HIV positive, as well as what they are working on next:
This is just the first step though, in a two step process. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has the authority to decide which illnesses constitute “communicable diseases of public health significance.” Currently, HIV is on this list, meaning that the HIV ban will not immediately be lifted with the passage of Pepfar. So, what happens next?
We must now set our sights on HHS. and urge them to strike HIV from its list. Immigration Equality is working in coalition with other organizations now to determine the best way to approach HHS. In order for the ban to be fully repealed, HHS will have to issue proposed regulations, allow for public comments, and then issue final regulations. This could be a lengthy (and contentious) process.
Meanwhile, foreign nationals who are HIV-positive, will still have to meet the requirements of the existing HIV waiver law. Anyone who has specific strategy questions about their own legal situation should email or call Immigration Equality for more information. We will keep everyone posted about what you can do to help our efforts with HHS.
Other helpful links:
“Today we are one step closer to ending a discriminatory practice that stigmatizes all those living with HIV, squanders our moral authority, and sets us back in the fight against AIDS,” said Sen. Kerry. “By passing PEPFAR, the Senate not only has made a powerful statement about our commitment to eradicating HIV/AIDS but we have also voted to overturn the HIV travel and immigration ban that has no foundation in public health or common sense. There was no reason for this policy to still be on the books, and I am proud to have been part of eliminating this draconian ban.“