Lawmakers, Gay-Rights Groups Protesting New HIV/AIDS Travel Rule

Tuesday, December 11th 2007, 7:09 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ On World AIDS Day last month the White House said new rules would make it easier soon for people with HIV/AIDS to travel to the United States. Democratic lawmakers and gay rights groups are complaining that the regulations proposed by the Homeland Security Department could actually create more barriers.

Gay rights advocates have long opposed a 1993 federal law that strictly restricts travel and immigration to the U.S. by HIV-positive people, arguing it's outdated and discriminatory. Foreigners with the virus can obtain visas only after receiving a waiver from the Homeland Security Department in a cumbersome process that requires approval from DHS headquarters.

Activists say this can lead people to lie on visa applications about whether they have HIV, then travel to the U.S. without needed medication to avoid being found out by Customs officials.

The White House says it wants to make the process easier for HIV-positive people seeking 30-day stays for business or pleasure. As part of President Bush's observance of World AIDS Day on Nov. 30, the administration announced the publication of regulations meant to speed up the process.

``The administration is working to end discrimination against people living with HIV/AIDS,'' said a White House fact sheet. ``A 'categorical waiver' will enable HIV-positive people to enter the United States for short visits through a streamlined process.''

The rule proposed by the Department of Homeland Security last month would allow short-term visas to be granted to HIV-positive people by U.S. consulates in their home countries, cutting out the involvement of DHS headquarters and thus potentially speeding up the process greatly. However, applicants would have to agree to certain conditions, including giving up the ability to apply for a longer stay or permanent residency in the United States.

The DHS rule refers to people with the HIV infection, which would include people who are HIV-positive but have not developed AIDS and HIV-positive people who do have AIDS.

In a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, more than two dozen Democratic House members objected that the changes do nothing to lessen the burden on HIV-positive people, instead shifting decision-making authority to ``local consular officers who may lack the appropriate medical expertise.''

``Applicants would still have to somehow persuade an official that they are of minimal danger, will not transmit the virus and will not cost the government money,'' said the letter released Monday by Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif. ``There would be no appeal process. Selecting this pathway would also require applicants to waive any right to readjust their status once in the United States _ a waiver not required under current policy.''

Homeland Security Spokeswoman Veronica Valdes contended the new rule does provide a streamlined process for HIV-positive people to visit the United States. She had no immediate response to the criticism in Lee's letter, saying the department would review it and respond.

The comment period on the proposed rule closed last Thursday but Valdes couldn't say when a final rule would be published.

Gay rights activists say the U.S. is one of just a handful of countries that restrict travel for HIV-positive people. They say that because of the prohibition, the biennial International AIDS Conference has not been held in the U.S. for well over a decade.

Lee has introduced legislation to overturn the ban.

It's not clear how many people would be affected by the proposed rule. The State Department says that in the 2006 fiscal year, 139 people were found ineligible to travel to the U.S. on a nonimmigrant visa because of having a communicable disease, but that 127 of those people overcame the finding and were able to get a visa.

However that applies to all communicable diseases, not just HIV/AIDS, and the department couldn't provide a breakout of just HIV/AIDS cases. The statistics also don't take into account people who were discouraged from applying for a visa because of being HIV positive, or who didn't report their status.