By Lisa Keen
Friday, Oct. 30 – President Obama announced today that his administration will end the long-standing policy at Health and Human Services that banned immigration by people with HIV infection. He announced the policy change during a ceremony at the White House where he signed a bill to reauthorize the Ryan White program to help people with HIV and low incomes.
President Bush signed legislation last year that ended a 1993 statutory ban specifically against people with HIV. That law was called the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). But it did not end the policy of the Health and Human Services Department that excluded people with a “communicable disease of public health significance.” That policy also excluded people with HIV. And many HIV and civil rights organizations said the law Bush signed did not really end the discrimination against people with HIV.
“Practically speaking, with the ban once again under the purview of HHS, nothing has changed for people living with HIV traveling through or immigrating to the United States,” said the Community HIV/AIDS Mobilization Project (CHAMP).
In his remarks at a White House ceremony, President Obama noted that he and wife Michelle Obama had taken an HIV test during a visit to Kenya to help combat the stigma attached to HIV. He said his administration, on Monday, would take “another step toward ending that stigma.” He said HHS would publish a final rule on Monday that will eliminate the ban effective with the new year.
“This is a battle that is far from over,” said Obama, noting that 1.1 million people in the U.S. are living with HIV and 56,000 are newly infected each year. He also noted that, although gay men comprise “two to three percent of the population,” they account for “half of all cases.”
He credited Presidents Clinton and Bush for beginning the process of eliminating discrimination against people with HIV.
“We are finishing the job,” he said.
Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese issued a statement thanking President Obama for taking the actions.
“Today’s actions signal both to Americans and to the world that the United States is a nation that will care for those most in need at home and will no longer close the door to HIV-positive people abroad,” said Solmonese. “Today, President Obama has extended one of our nation’s proudest responses to the HIV/AIDS epidemic and finally erased on our of most shameful.”
President Obama also thanked the HIV community organizations for its “consensus statement” in working to renew reauthorization of the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resource Emergency (CARE) Act. Congress last week voted to extend the program for another four years. The program provides medical care and medication to more than half a million people with low incomes to have HIV infection. Congress must now wrestle with funding for the measure.
The HIV immigration ban has been in place since 1987, when the Health and Human Services department under President Reagan, adopted a policy of barring entry to the U.S. of anyone with AIDS or who tested positive for HIV infection. The ban was later made into law through legislation introduced by Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) and the policy was enacted in December 1987.
The ban has been enormously controversial, putting the United States in the company of only a dozen countries worldwide that banned people with HIV. In 1990, when San Francisco hosted the International Conference on AIDS, many participants boycotted the conference and protested outside the conference. A subsequent conference scheduled for Boston was quickly re-located to Amsterdam as a result.
Through the years, there was some effort to soften and revise the ban. President George H.W. Bush instituted a policy of allowing some people with HIV to obtain a 10-day waiver if they were coming into the country to attend a scientific forum. Although President Clinton signed the bill in 1993 that codified the HIV ban, did grant a waiver of the ban in 1994 for the Gay Games in New York and Atlanta in 1996. The Bush administration granted a waiver in 2006 for the Gay Games in Chicago.