CDC Hears Loud and Clear: HIV Travel Ban Should Go
Majority of 20,000 Comments to CDC Support Lifting Travel Ban; Activists Rally at Canadian/U.S. border
August 20, 2009
In Surrey, British Columbia and Niagara, New York last Sunday dozens of Canadians and Americans joined in solidarity to support lifting the U.S. ban on travel and immigration by people living with HIV. The views of the ralliers were buttressed by the incredible volume of comments made to the CDC in favor of its proposal to lift the ban: By the comment period deadline on Monday, the CDC had received 20,000 comments, the vast majority in support of ending the despicable policy -- though some health departments pushed for mandatory testing of immigrants.
"We were all incredibly energized around eliminating this policy that creates so much stigma," said Doulton Wiltshire of AIDS Niagara, the Canadian AIDS organization that helped organize the rally in Niagara. Wiltshire collected 300 signatures of people supporting lifting the ban on a giant petition, which was submitted to the CDC. At both the rally in Niagara and in Surrey, speakers talked about how the ban is discriminatory.
"If the U.S. wants to be a leader in the fight against AIDS, it has to start by eliminating any type of restriction on people with HIV status," Housing Works President and CEO Charles King said at the Niagara rally.
See Surrey rally organizer Martin Rooney's website for the full press coverage and see Reverend Keith Holder of Washington, D.C. speak against the ban in Niagara below:
Mandatory HIV Testing
While the end to the ban will certainly face bureaucratic obstacles, the good news is that the comment period yielded comments overwhelmingly in favor of fully lifting the ban (The Human Rights Campaign helped corral 17,663 of the 20,000 comments through national action alerts to their lists). According to an analysis by Immigration Equality, no organizations or government entities suggested keeping the ban in place (though some individual commenters issued terse statements such as "NO HIV Immigrants!").
However, there were a few comments from state and municipal governments that suggested retaining mandatory HIV testing from immigrants. These comments, which came from the California Department of Social Services, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and Multnomah County, Oregon were responding to CDC's statement in the resolution that "although the approach of removing HIV from the definition of communicable disease of public health significance but maintaining the mandatory testing component of the medical examination was not selected for this proposal, HHS/CDC welcomes public comment on the advantages and disadvantages of this or alternative approaches, such as (non-mandatory) testing ( i.e., opt out/opt in approach)."
Experts agree that mandatory testing would be disastrous -- and possibly illegal.
"Obviously everyone supports the goal that people with HIV should know they're positive, but the immigration system is so ripe with stress, abuse and sensitivity. It is not the proper venue for testing," said Immigration Equality Legal Director Victoria Neilson. "In addition, if the ban is lifted, it's legally shaky ground if the U.S. even has the authority to test for HIV."
Nancy Ordover, founder of the Lift the Ban Coalition, agreed that mandatory testing would create new problems. "If the CDC removes HIV from its definition of 'communicable disease of public health significance' but maintains mandatory testing for people trying to immigrate/adjust their residency status, HIV will be the only nonexcludable health condition with a mandatory test."
Is This Really the End?
While the end of the ban looks promising, immigrants with HIV trying to get green cards, and travelers from throughout the world who just want to visit the U.S. should know that nothing is a done deal.
What is the next step now that the comment period is over? The CDC will develop responses to the comments and a final regulation will be drafted and submitted to the Office of Management and Budget for up to 90 days for a second review before the CDC publishes the final review. If the ban is then lifted, there will be many bureaucratic hurdles ahead, particularly the process of reviewing greencard requests for the backlog of HIV-positive immigrants living in the United States.
This isn't the first time the CDC submitted comments to lift the ban. In the early 1990s, the CDC solicited comments but when the ban looked like it might be lifted, Sen. Jesse Helms championed a 1993 law preventing HIV-positive people from entering the U.S. The 1993 law was repealed in July 2008 by Congress and President Bush as part of the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).
"We've reached this threshold before. A lot of people are feeling like it's a done deal. What I did find gratifying was that the rule that the CDC put out, I think is good," Ordover said. "But I won't say I'm optimistic until the ban's lifted."
This article was provided by Housing Works. It is a part of the publication Housing Works AIDS Issues Update. Visit Housing Works' website to find out more about their activities, publications and services.
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