Critical First Step Achieved in Repeal of HIV Travel and Immigration Ban

07/26/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Yesterday, the United States Senate voted to repeal a discriminatory vestige of another era, a law that prevented nearly every foreign national with HIV-be it as a tourist, a student, a worker or even to seek legal residency -- from entering the United States. Senators approved this repeal less than two weeks after the death of their former colleague Jesse Helms, who advocated vociferously against the interest of people with HIV and AIDS during his tenure in the Senate, including supporting the measure barring HIV-positive visitors and immigrants.

As part of legislation reauthorizing the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), a program that serves as an inspiring example of our nation's commitment to the worldwide efforts against the epidemic, the Senate furthered the United States' role as a global leader on HIV and AIDS by adopting a measure championed by Senators John Kerry and Gordon Smith to repeal language declaring people with HIV "inadmissible" to the United States.

The ban on HIV-positive visitors and immigrants originated in 1987, and was explicitly codified by Congress in 1993, at a time when fear and stigma still trumped public health and medical expertise in driving HIV/AIDS policy. HIV became the only medical condition explicitly listed as a basis for exclusion in U.S. immigration law.

That ignorance and bigotry led our nation to adopt this policy then is deeply disappointing; that we should permit such mindless discrimination to exist in our laws today is unconscionable. The United Nations, World Health Organization and other groups long ago concluded that such travel and immigration restrictions serve not to protect the public health, but rather to stigmatize and discriminate against HIV-positive people. Maintaining such a harsh immigration policy puts the United States in the company of notorious human-rights abusers, including Russia, Saudi Arabia and Sudan.

For too long, this ban has overshadowed nearly three decades of tireless work, by millions of Americans-scientists and social workers, parents and friends -- to fight back against the darkness of the epidemic. Treatment, prevention and the search for a cure have advanced at a staggering rate. We as a nation have come so far from the earliest days, when ignorance and fear barred children from their classrooms and workers from their jobs. Yet, our draconian policies have continued to needlessly deny us the contributions of medical and scientific experts, who could not or would not travel to or work within a nation that rejected people living with HIV. This is not the leadership the world needs to fight the epidemic.

This policy has not only blemished the United States' record as a leader against HIV and AIDS worldwide, it has had serious consequences at home. It has kept apart, or even torn apart, couples and families. It has denied businesses access to talented workers and universities the contributions of brilliant students. It has driven away HIV/AIDS conferences and meetings. How can a nation lead the fight against the epidemic abroad when it has closed its own doors to people with HIV?

Yesterday, on behalf of the Human Rights Campaign, our president, Joe Solmonese applauded the Senate for taking a critical step toward opening those doors and reaffirming our nation's true leadership in fighting HIV and AIDS. He added:

The Human Rights Campaign is proud to have been a key part of the effort to repeal this discriminatory law. But our work isn't over. We call on the House of Representatives and the President to follow the Senate's lead and finally lift the travel and immigration ban. Once the ban is removed from law, the Secretary of Health and Human Services must act quickly to address regulatory barriers to the equal treatment of HIV-positive visitors and immigrants.

In an act that stirred up a lot of anger in the GLBT blogosphere, Senator Elizabeth Dole introduced an amendment that would have named the PEPFAR bill after her predecessor from North Carolina, Jesse Helms. Luckily, this amendment was not adopted and the only legacy for Helms in this legislation will be the repudiation of a discriminatory policy he supported, one rooted in the ignorance and fear of another era.