Friday, October 30, 2009

White House Announces End to HIV Travel Ban

When I heard that President Obama lifted the travel and immigration ban for HIV-positive individuals, my initial response was positive. After all, stigmatizing individuals with HIV or any other illness is heartless and illogical.

But, after putting more thought into it, I realized that although lifting the travel ban does make sense, lifting the immigration ban does not. In the context of an already beleaguered health care system, it is unwise to knowingly invite individuals into the country that run a high risk of needing expensive drugs and medical treatments (that are heavily subsidized by tax payers). A nation that cares for its sick and poor is noble and humane, but a nation that imports poverty and sickness is foolish and irresponsible. This is especially true as we confront the daunting challenges of funding health care for the uninsured in a time of rapidly increasing medical costs..

By simultaneously lifting the immigration ban and offering free medical care regardless of citizenship, the Obama Administration will create a magnet for the immigration of individuals with HIV and other illnesses. The logic is simple: if you were a poor, HIV-positive Guatemalan or Ghanaian would you not do everything possible to legally or illegally immigrate to the United States to receive free or subsidized treatment, especially after hearing that a major barrier to your entry was eliminated? Given our struggle with rising health care costs, we should provide incentives to attract young, healthy, educated immigrants who will become net-contributors to the health care system, rather than accelerate our race to financial insolvency.

White House announces end to HIV travel ban

By Garance Franke-Ruta

President Obama called the 22-year ban on travel and immigration by HIV-positive individuals a decision "rooted in fear rather than fact" and announced the end of the rule-making process lifting the ban.

The president signed the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Treatment Extension Act of 2009 at the White House Friday and also spoke of the new rules, which have been under development more more than a year. "We are finishing the job," the president said.

The regulations are the final procedural step in ending the ban, and will be published Monday in the Federal Register, to be followed by the standard 60-day waiting period prior to implementation.

A ban on travel and immigration to the U.S. by individuals with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, was first established by the Reagan-era U.S. Public Health Service and then given further support when Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) added HIV to the travel-exclusion list in a move that was ultimately passed unanimously by the Senate in 1987.

A 1990-1991 effort to overturn the regulatory ban failed in the face of outcry and lobbying from conservative groups and bureaucratic turf disputes. The ban was upheld in 1993 when Congress added it to U.S. immigration laws.

The Senate finally voted to overturn the ban as part of approving legislation reauthorizing funding for the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, in 2008, and President Bush signed it into law on July 30 of that year. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and then-Sen. Gordon H. Smith (R-Ore.) led the process in the Senate.

"This really proves that immigration laws that exclude families and stigmatize individuals are destined to fail," said Rachel B. Tiven, executive director of Immigration Equality, a group that has mobilized more than 20,000 comments in support of ending the ban.

"The climate has really changed," she said, attributing the end of the ban to a diminishment in "misinformation about HIV and AIDS."

The lifting of the ban removes one of the last vestiges of early U.S. AIDS policy. "We're thrilled that the ban has been lifted based on science, reason, and human rights. Our hope is that this decision reflects a commitment to adopting more evidence-based policies when confronting the AIDS epidemic and developing a comprehensive national AIDS strategy," said Kevin Robert Frost, CEO of amFAR, an AIDS research foundation.

Until today's announcement, the U.S. was one of only 7 countries with laws that bar entry of people with HIV, the group noted.

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