A Netherlandish man arriving in New York City on Thursday became the first HIV-positive foreigner legally permitted to enter the U.S. in over two decades. In November, President Obama lifted a ban, in place since the Reagan administration, on foreign tourists with the virus that causes AIDS. This week, the first such visitor landed on U.S. soil. Now, after 22 years, HIV-positive people will finally be permitted to visit "the land of the free."
Clemens Ruland, 45 (the right-hand figure in the accompanying photo), who works with troubled youth in Amsterdam and was diagnosed with HIV in 1997, arrived on a KLM Royal Dutch Airlines flight to NYC on Thursday afternoon at about 4:30 pm. He was accompanied by his partner, Hugo Bausch, who is HIV-negative. Ruland won their free trip to NYC by entering a poem into a contest held by the Dutch AIDS service organization SOAAIDS in celebration of President Obama's November decision to lift the ban. For Ruland, who used to travel to the U.S. frequently, this was a historic moment. "I feel proud to be here without the need to hide my status," Ruland said. "I also feel very humble." And, he went on, "This is not about me, but about the thousands of others who were afraid to disclose their HIV status."
As Ruland said in his interview with reporters after arriving in New York, he, along with many other HIV-positive people, travelled to the U.S. during the ban—but this could be a risky choice. "I know a lot of people who were deported when they got caught—deported for life," he said. "I had to put my medicine in different containers and put someone else's name on them, just in case I got caught." It is worth remembering that the ban also prevented long-term foreign residents of the U.S. from obtaining legal residence status, keeping them in an endlessly precarious social position.
When he lifted the ban, President Obama described his decision as, "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." Moreover, the U.S. has not hosted an HIV/AIDS conference in over two decades, since many interested parties would not have been able to attend. Now the 2012 International AIDS Conference is planned for Washington, D.C. As President Obama said in November, "If we want to be the global leader in combating HIV/AIDS, we need to act like it."
It looks like we're finally acting like it. Here's to Mr. Ruland being the first of many welcome visitors!