U.S. Ban on HIV-Positive Visitors, Immigrants Expires

Health experts say the 22-year ban reflected ignorance about disease.

January 5, 2010, 1:47 PM

WASHINGTON, Jan. 5, 2010— -- In a move public health and human rights advocates have hailed as a "victory," the so-called HIV travel ban, which barred entry to the U.S. by people living with HIV or AIDS, has been officially revoked, bringing to a close years of work to end the measure.

"I think there's reason to be joyful that the ban has been lifted because a ban like this sends the message that somehow we're going to protect ourselves from HIV by not letting people with HIV come into the country," Dr. Tom Coates, a UCLA global health expert, told ABC News. "And the truth of the matter is that's not how we protect ourselves from HIV."

For more than 20 years, people living with HIV or AIDS needed look no further than the United States' front door for a reminder of the stigma associated with their disease. A U.S. immigration measure first imposed in 1987 after politicians reacted to the outbreak of AIDS prohibited all infected persons from obtaining U.S. tourist visas or permanent residence status unless they obtained a special waiver.

Coates said the ban created a "false security" and fueled misunderstanding that public health and prevention programs are the best way to curb spread of the disease.

President George W. Bush began the process to repeal the ban in 2008, and in October, President Obama took the final steps to complete the move. The repeal took effect on Monday.

"If we want to be the global leader in combating HIV/AIDS, we need to act like it," the president then said.

He also called the ban a "decision rooted in fear rather than fact."

The ban has kept out thousands of students, tourists and refugees and has complicated the adoption of children with HIV, immigration rights groups say. The United States has also been unable to host a major international AIDS conference because HIV-positive activists and researchers have been barred.

While immigration law still excludes foreigners with any "communicable disease of public health significance," HIV has been removed from the list of those meriting denied entry.

But some immigration control groups have been critical of the ban's repeal because of its potential cost to taxpayers.

HIV-Positive Foreigners Not Seen as Public Health Threat

"You're running into a huge public expense because most people simply cannot afford the drugs to treat HIV out of their own pockets," Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, told ABC News. "[HIV-positive immigrants] will require all sorts of assistance from the government to pay for the drugs that they need, and so our issue in terms of permanent immigration is not so much a public health issue but a public charge issue."

But many HIV/AIDS victims' advocates say the ban had been unnecessary, ineffective and unjustified, praising its repeal.

"A sad chapter in our nation's response to people with HIV and AIDS has finally come to a close and we are a better nation for it," said Joe Solomonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign.

Michel Sidibe, executive director of UNAIDS, which coordinates the U.N.'s AIDS response, called the policy change a "victory for human rights on two sides of the globe" and urged other nations to follow suit.

Fifty-seven countries still have travel restrictions on people with HIV, according to UNAIDS, including China, Cuba, Egypt, Israel, New Zealand, Poland and Russia.

After Obama finalized repeal of the ban in October, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that Washington, D.C., would host a World AIDS Conference in 2012. The meeting, which has not been hosted by the United States since 1989, is expected to bring together the world's top researchers and experts on HIV and AIDS.

About 1.1 million Americans are living with HIV/AIDS, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and more than 56,000 new infections occur every year.