Obama Ends Ban Restricting Entry of HIV-Positive Travelers and Immigrants into the US

A human rights victory emerged from the White House last week when President Obama announced that he would end the ban restricting entry of HIV-positive travelers and immigrants into the US. The 22-year ban, first instated in 1987 when AIDS was thought to spread by respiratory or physical contact, has reinforced barriers to reducing stigma and improving identification and treatment of the disease. The statute has been considered a human rights violation with no medical or scientific basis, carried out by a nation that boasts values of equality, non-discrimination, and the protection of human rights.

The last failed attempt to repeal the ban occurred in the early 1990s, when the Centers for Disease Control recommended that “only active tuberculosis remain on the list of excludable conditions,” according to a chronology of the ban on AIDS.org. During the comment period following the CDC proposal in the Federal Register, 35,000 postcards and letters were received by right-wing religious leaders, and the Republican Study Committee generated a letter opposing the recommendation that was signed by 67 members in the House of Representatives.

In 2003, the tide started to change. Former President George W. Bush authorized PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which allocated $15 billion over five years to combat AIDS globally and made the US a world leader in the effort. The reauthorization of PEPFAR in 2008 included an important provision favorable to the repeal of the travel ban. The Senate and the House both voted in support of the repeal and gave clearance to Health and Human Services to omit HIV from the list of communicable diseases denied entry into the US. The US was on track to giving HIV-positive travelers and immigrants the rights they deserved.

President Obama announced his intention to repeal the ban on Friday, October 30, while signing the fourth reauthorization of the Ryan White CARE Act, which has funded HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention programs in the US since 1990. The new rule appeared in the Federal Register on November 2 and will now undergo a two-month commentary period before going into effect in early 2010. The Health and Human Services department confirmed this action in a press statement released Monday. The press statement concedes that “although the United States has been a leader worldwide when it comes to ending the stigma of HIV/AIDS, we’ve been one of only 12 countries who, by their policies, still enable the myth that HIV/AIDS is a threat.”

The Associated Press and NPR note that, among other consequences, the ban “has kept out thousands of students, tourists and refugees and has complicated the adoption of children with HIV.” The law has also prevented international conferences and meetings about HIV/AIDS from occurring in the United States, another obstruction in the global initiative to control the disease through collaboration, education, and stigma reduction.

As Joe Amon, director of the Health and Human Rights division at Human Rights Watch, states, “Lifting a policy that so clearly violates both human rights and public health needs is long past due. Countries around the world that still have bans should follow this example.”

For more information and responses:

A History of HIV/AIDS in the US

Immigration Equality FAQ

Washington Post Editorial from May 2008

UNAIDS Press Center

The Lancet

International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission call for ban