Bill Would End U.S. Ban On Visas For Those With HIV

This week, the Senate approved a $48 billion extension of the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. Included in the bill was a provision that would lift a ban, in place since 1987, on visas for people with HIV.

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Since 1987, people with HIV who were not already residents of the U.S. could be denied entry to the country. This week the U.S. Senate voted to remove that ban. NPR's Brenda Wilson reports.

BRENDA WILSON: The current law says any person who is not a citizen, the law reads "any alien," is inadmissible to the U.S. if it is determined that they have a communicable disease of public health significance. It singles out HIV. The late Senator Jesse Helms got it put into law in 1987. It was a different time, as Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts points out.

Senator JOHN KERRY (Democrat, Massachusetts): During the 1980s particularly, and into some of the '90s, whether people were looking at the gay community in San Francisco or New York, an awful lot of people in power viewed this disease as just something that happens to other people.

WILSON: Kerry, along with Republican Gordon Smith of Oregon, sponsored an amendment this week to repeal the law. It was attached to the 48-billion-dollar global AIDS bill that passed by an overwhelming majority. Activists and health professionals have tried to get the ban overturned for years. In 1991, the Centers for Disease Control proposed that only active tuberculosis remain on the list of excludable conditions, because HIV is not casually transmitted.

It saw no risk of allowing HIV-positive people to attend the International AIDS Conference in San Francisco that year. The CDC received more than 35,000 protest letters. Are there not enough homosexuals with AIDS in the United States that we now need to import more? More homosexuals, more AIDS, more death being brought into the United States?

The ban was seen as a way of protecting people in this country from becoming infected and keeping people with HIV from flooding the U.S. medical care system. Activists from ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power, confronted HHS Secretary Lewis Sullivan when he addressed the San Francisco conference.

(Soundbite of protesters)

Unidentified Man: In the 10 years that we have known about AIDS, we have made remarkable progress.

WILSON: A member of ACT UP at the time, Kate Krauss is now a member of Physicians for Human Rights.

Ms. KATE KRAUSS (Spokeswoman, Physicians for Human Rights): Every major conference held in the United States, it has been a constant struggle to wrangle visas for important HIV advocates over the last few years. People are waiting for a special dispensation because they're HIV positive to allow them to come. Some cases, it's not completely clear why they're unable to come.

WILSON: Three successive presidents - Bush, Clinton, and Bush - tried to lift the ban. Immigrants are banned from countries for various reasons, but Senator Kerry noted the ban on people with HIV puts the U.S. in special company.

Senator KERRY: You got the Sudan, you got Russia, Libya, Saudi Arabia. Even China recently decided, as it showcases itself at the Beijing Olympics, that the time had come to move beyond such an antiquated sort of instant, knee-jerk reaction policy.

WILSON: What opposition the Kerry-Smith amendment faced melted away in the waning hours of the debate on the AIDS funding bill. The bill must now be reconciled with the House version. But so far, no one is expecting opposition to surface. Brenda Wilson, NPR News.

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