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Travel and Immigration Restrictions

By Dorothy Kleffner

November 2006

While we have won many battles against discrimination, limitations on travel and immigration remain a glaring example of how countries limit human rights based on HIV status. Such laws create severe and undue hardships and continue to grow worldwide year by year.

One of the most severe limitations on such freedom of movement comes from the U.S., which does not allow any person infected with HIV to travel or immigrate to the U.S., or change planes en route to another destination. Blanket waivers are sometimes granted for a special event such as the International AIDS conference in Toronto. But anyone that accepted the offer to allow one-time transit through the U.S. was entered into the U.S. database and will now be denied entry at any U.S. border. There are also individual travel waivers that can be applied for. These waivers are expensive and difficult to obtain, take a long time to process, and are almost always declined. People attempting to cross the border without knowledge of this law are frequently detected by the presence of HIV medications in their luggage. Such people are fingerprinted, entered into the database, and a notation is placed in their passport. With this in their passport, they frequently experience difficulty with subsequent travel to other parts of the world. Many people wishing to travel to the US leave their medications behind, jeopardizing their health.

A friend of mine, a grandmother from the Caribbean now living in Canada, was planning to visit her family this year. She was scheduled on a direct flight, but was rerouted to change planes in the U.S. Since she was required to clear customs even though she was only changing planes, her HIV medications were detected in her luggage, and her HIV status was announced quite loudly. She was interrogated, fingerprinted, and notes were made in her passport. She was not allowed to complete the trip, did not see her family, and she will never be allowed to enter the U.S. again, even though she lives only a few miles from the border.

While travel waivers are almost always denied, waivers of the U.S. immigration restriction are occasionally approved, particularly when legal experts with experience with this law are involved. But many people are still deported simply because they are HIV positive, and I have met husbands unable to bring their wives to live with them in the U.S. We know that most women worldwide are infected because of circumstances beyond their control, poverty and a lack of power over their personal circumstances. It seriously increases the burden to deny them the right to immigrate or even travel.

Since the International AIDS Conference is always held outside of the US as a boycott of this law, GNP+NA (The Global Network of People with HIV/AIDS North America) presented a panel discussion at the IAS 2006 conference in Toronto to highlight and bring focus to this issue.

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