Mexico's HIV/AIDS Patients Seek U.S. Asylum

Many Mexican immigrants with HIV/AIDS say their country still has a repressive, sometimes brutal way of dealing with those afflicted with the virus. As a result, HIV/AIDS patients in Mexico are seeking — and getting — political asylum in the U.S.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

The International AIDS Conference in Mexico City is focusing on struggles with the disease around the world. It's also bringing out stories about the lives of people in Mexico who are HIV positive. At the start of the conference, President Felipe Calderon promised to provide free AIDS drugs for every one in his country who needs them. Meanwhile, some Mexicans with AIDS are asking for political asylum in the U.S.

As NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, they say being HIV positive has made them targets back home.

CARRIE KAHN: Basilio Villa grew up in a small village in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. He says the taunting and beating started when he was in elementary school. The abuse continued even after he moved to Mexico City in search of a more tolerant atmosphere.

BASILIO VILLA: (Through Translator) I was at this party one night with a few friends. As we were leaving, six guys followed us out. Then they jumped us. They beat us up and they ripped off our clothes. The whole time, they were calling us names because we're gay. We called the police. But when they arrived and we told them that we were gay, they said they couldn't do anything to help us.

KAHN: Villa says, soon after, he snuck across the border into Arizona and made his way to Oakland, California. A year later, he was diagnosed with AIDS. He says now he's taking dozens of anti-AIDS drugs and is feeling much better.

VILLA: (Through Translator) I thank God I'm here and I'm getting the medication that keeps me alive. I'm not with my family, but if I wasn't here, I'd be dead.

KAHN: Immigration attorneys and AIDS activists say Villa's story isn't unique. They charge that pervasive homophobia and dismal AIDS treatment in Mexico amount to a death sentence for those sent back home, and they say that's even true for AIDS patients who aren't gay.

ADINA MONTERO: (Spanish spoken)

KAHN: And Adina Montero says her boyfriend infected her with HIV back in their hometown in Vera Cruz, Mexico. She says she was rejected by relatives and received death threats from her boyfriend's family.

MONTERO: (Spanish spoken)

KAHN: Montero says she came to the U.S. illegally in January 2001. She went to a doctor soon after and was told she had AIDS. She was granted asylum a year ago.

Kusia Hreshchyshyn is a lawyer with the East Bay Sanctuary in Berkeley. She represents several AIDS asylum seekers and says all face many legal hurdles.

KUSIA HRESHCHYSHYN: Just because you have HIV doesn't make you automatically eligible for asylum. There are other elements that you need to meet.

KAHN: And in Adina Montero's case, she was able to show past anti-government political activities that also put her at risk if she were to return. Basilio Villa's testimony of past anti-gay abuse aided him. Only a small percent of Mexicans who ask for asylum in the U.S. ever get it, it's unknown how many used HIV/AIDS status as part of their claim. But Omar Baños(ph) with the AIDS Project in Los Angeles - who's been an expert witness at immigration hearings - says he's seen a rise in cases due to what he says are Mexico's deep-rooted prejudices.

OMAR BA: A lot of people still think that they can get AIDS or HIV just by hugging someone or by kissing someone, so that's why there's a lot of stigma.

KAHN: Thousands of protesters hit the streets of Mexico City on the eve of the International AIDS Conference to confront that stigma. Ricardo Alday, spokesman for the Mexican Embassy in Washington, D.C., says the fact that Mexico is hosting the conference proves his country is moving in the right direction.

RICARDO ALDAY: It's a great step towards exposing the problem, accepting it and working with everybody in our societies.

KAHN: Unfortunately, some activists and gay Mexicans living in the U.S. say their country isn't progressing fast enough.

Unidentified Man: (Spanish spoken)

KAHN: This 41-year-old Mexican AIDS patient living illegally in the U.S. says he's faced death threats since he was a child. He applied for asylum earlier this year, claiming he was the victim of brutal assaults. His case is still under consideration.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News.

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