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Congress to HHS: End the HIV Ban, Once and For All

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Earlier this year, Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and Gordon Smith (R-OR), along with Congresswoman Barbara Lee of California, led a successful and historic effort in Congress to finally do away with the antiquated and unnecessary HIV-travel ban. The ban, which prevents HIV+ travelers and immigrants from entering the United States, is a discriminatory throwback to a time when we were largely ignorant about the disease and lived in fear of those who were infected and living with HIV. It is, at its core, a prejudicial policy that has prevented our country from hosting international HIV/AIDS conferences . . . and it has put us far behind other civilized nations, who long ago took their own bans off the books.

However, despite this summer's Congressional vote to repeal the ban, it still remains in effect, and will continue to be the law of the land until the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) modifies its regulations and implements Congress' will. Now, those who ushered through repeal on Capitol Hill are reiterating their intent, and urging HHS Secretary Michael Leavitt to follow their lead and get rid of the ban once and for all. Fifty-eight Members of Congress have sent a letter to the Administration, urging them to take action now.

"It's time for Secretary Leavitt and the Administration to finally eliminate this misguided policy," Senator Kerry said in a statement released by Immigration Equality, which helped lead the effort to end the ban. "This is not something that can wait for the next Administration to come into office. We need to expedite this process and finally lift the HIV travel and immigration ban so that no one will be subjected to this discriminatory practice. There was no reason for the policy to still be on the books, and I will continue to fight to eliminate this draconian ban."

Repeal of the ban, in fact, could be seen as one of the few universally admired actions of the Bush Administration. As part of the widely-acclaimed President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) - which has been one of those rare White House efforts supported by Americans and lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle - ending the policy would be met with praise abroad and applause at home.

In fact, the United States is only of only 13 countries to have such harsh HIV restrictions, according to Immigration Equality. And what company do we keep by keeping the ban on the books? Not the good kind. Our ban puts us in alignment with the likes of Iraq, Sudan, Oman and Saudi Arabia, among others. Hardly the company most Americans want us to keep.

The White House has indicated no aversion to ending the ban. And Congress has made its position clear. So now it is up to HHS to finally put America among a league of truly 21st century nations who reject HIV-prejudice and take such policies off their books.

The department has said that it does intend to end the ban, though it has not outlined a timeline for doing so, other than to indicate it hopes to get the job done before the end of Bush's watch.
"We're working hard to revise the regulation and it's our goal to have it completed during this administration," HHS spokeswoman Holly Babin told the Associated Press, calling the regulatory change "a time-consuming process."

The result, however, it worth the effort. Ending the HIV travel ban - as only HHS can now do - means ending a woefully small-minded law that has kept America behind the times.

"The time has come to finish [this] job and end the devastating impact this ban has had on HIV-positive people and their families," Victor Neilson, the legal director for Immigration Equality, said.

"Congress has done its part," Neilson told AP, and "it's time for HHS to act."

For more information on the efforts to finally end the ban, visit www.immigrationequality.org.

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