Lawmakers, Gay Activists Protest HIV Travel Rules

On World AIDS Day, White House officials said new rules would soon make it easier for people with HIV 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a 1993 federal law that strictly restricts travel and immigration to the U.S. by HIV-positive people, arguing it's outdated and discriminatory.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.

BY keleveld

December 12 2007 1:00 AM ET

On World AIDS
Day, White House officials said new rules would soon make
it easier for people with HIV 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people, arguing it's outdated and discriminatory.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.

Bush
administration officials say they want 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 November 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 HIV, 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 of California.
''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 United States 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 repeal 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, and the
department couldn't provide a breakout of just HIV 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.
(Erica Werner, AP)

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