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Doors Wide Open: The Impact of Lifting the HIV Travel Ban

By L. K. Regan

As you may have heard, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has announced that, as of January 1, 2010, it will end the twenty year-old practice of barring HIV-positive people from immigrating to or even visiting the United States. This is widely being perceived as a symbolic concession to the gay community, following up on the passage of LGBT hate crimes legislation last month, in an effort by the Obama administration to mend fences with gays. But the lifting of the travel ban will have a variety of benefits beyond just oiling the waters. Here's a sense of what it will mean.

The travel ban for HIV-positive persons was first instituted in 1987 (and enshrined by statute in 1993), when knowledge of how AIDS was contracted was in its infancy. Ending it signals, one hopes, a new attitude toward HIV/AIDS in the United States. As Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius said in her announcement of the change on Tuesday, the HIV travel ban had put the U.S. in the company of only 12 countries worldwide that treat HIV-positive people as a threat. (Other countries include Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Sudan, South Korea and Russia.) "Lifting the HIV 'entry ban'," Sebelius said, "represents the same blow against stigma that Ryan White himself fought for from the time he was 13 years old and contracted HIV/AIDS."

Beyond the question of stigma, the travel ban had serious practical implications. At the most basic level, it encouraged dishonesty and cultivated a sense of fear among travelers. The government was never in the practice of testing visitors to the U.S. for HIV, but immigration and visa applications ask whether the applicant has any communicable diseases; a yes answer meant no entry, meaning that many people lied on the forms and then lived in fear or, worse yet, avoided getting tested out of fear that a positive result would somehow be reported. As blogger Andrew Sullivan describes the experience, "It is quite something to have a government stamp in your passport, as I do, that will tell any immigration or police officer with a connection to a government database that I have HIV, that I am therefore a threat and can be arrested and detained and deported at the border if necessary."

There are very concrete benefits to the change as well. Many of the neediest children in foreign orphanages are HIV-positive, but parents seeking to adopt those children have, until now, faced difficult legal hurdles. Likewise, students who have wanted to enroll in American universities have had to study elsewhere. And HIV/AIDS researchers are likely to be delighted with the change, since for nearly two decades they have been unable to hold any major conferences in the U.S.—too many people in the research and advocacy communities would be unable to attend. That has meant substantial financial and scheduling obstacles to conferring with colleagues. As Socorro Gorss, assistant director of the Pan American Health Organization told the New York Times, "We think this is going to give a very positive image of where the U.S. is going in terms of eliminating stigma and discrimination in relation to HIV."

President Obama commented on the decision to lift the travel ban as he was signing a bill extending an HIV/AIDS program founded in honor of Ryan White: "If we want to be the global leader in combating HIV/AIDS, we need to act like it," he said. "It’s a step that will encourage people to get tested and get treatment, it’s a step that will keep families together, and it’s a step that will save lives." And it's about time.