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March 14, 2008

Congress moves to repeal HIV-positive travel ban

Washington, D.C.--A bipartisan effort to repeal U.S. travel restrictions on persons who are HIV-positive is moving forward in the Senate. The amendment has been added to a bill reauthorizing PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Program for AIDS Relief.

The effort is being led by Senators John Kerry, DMass., and Gordon Smith ROregon, who introduced a similar stand alone repeal bill last December. Smith was not able to participate in a March 11 news conference on the measure.

The travel restrictions were first imposed in 1987, at the height of AIDS hysteria, by then Senator Jesse Helms, RN.C. The arch-conservative inserted language into a bill that directed the Secretary of Health and Human Services to add HIV to the list of medical conditions barring immigrants and visitors to the United States.

The department sought to loosen the restriction in the early 1990s but Congress took the opposite tack, writing the ban into immigration law. It is the only disease specifically mentioned in that statute.

President George W. Bush has acknowledged that the provision is counterproductive. On World AIDS Day 2006 he said he would modify administration of the law to make it easier for people to get a waiver to enter the country. But the alternatives that the Department of Homeland Security proposed were even worse. The law itself had to be changed.

In the conference call with reporters Kerry said,

“The Senate [PEPFAR renewal] language, right now, has this provision in it,” Kerry said of the repeal measure, in a conference call. He anticipates that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will approve it as written.

The ban “prohibited people from traveling to the U.N. or to conferences to discuss the issue,” while the existing waiver option “is very restrictive, resulting in a lot of unintended consequences,” Kerry noted.

“This is long overdue in terms of how we can repeal an outdated and misguided provision” in the immigration act, Kerry said.

Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., introduced a similar repeal in the House last August. She didn’t try to add it to PEPFAR in the House because she was “concerned with a possible motion to recommit” the entire bill by members seeking to stall it.

“There is no public health rationale for continuing this travel and immigration ban. It has not been shown to reduce the transmission of HIV/AIDS, nor has it provided any real economic benefit to the United States,” she said.

Lee said it is “pretty shameful” that the U.S. is one of only a dozen primarily authoritarian,countries with such a travel ban in place. The International AIDS Conference has boycotted the U.S. ever since it was imposed and she looks forward to it returning to the U.S. “so that our own communities can benefit from the deliberation and the contacts made at these conferences.”

The Bush administration does not oppose repeal of the travel ban. Last month the State Department lifted its blanket restrictions on hiring people who are HIV-positive to be diplomats. It will now consider HIV the same as other medical conditions, and evaluate candidates on their overall health and availability to serve worldwide.

Human Rights Campaign president Joe Solmonese called the effort “a tribute to the hard work and leadership of our champions in Congress.” He said the policy is “without a sound public health and medical rationale.”



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