CHICAGO – Senora Desiree cries when she talks about her only son, who is HIV-positive. The fact the 18-year-old has been barred from visiting Chicago only heaps humiliation on top of her pain.
“I have suffered so much because of the law,” said Desiree, a Chicago resident who last saw her son in their native Nicaragua three years ago.
President Barack Obama recently announced the 22-year-old ban on entry into the United States for anyone infected with HIV/AIDS will be lifted in January, making life a bit easier for mothers such as Desiree, who did not want her full name used because of the stigma of having an HIV-positive relative.
Tuesday marked the 21st World AIDS Day, and Americans today are more enlightened about how the disease is transmitted than they were two decades ago.
In 1987, many people thought of AIDS as a death sentence, passed through casual contact such as doorknobs and hugs. It was in this climate that the Immigration and Nationality Act denied visas to anyone with a “communicable disease of public health significance,” adding HIV to the list alongside other travel-restricted conditions, such as tuberculosis and leprosy.
“It was really a relic of the Jesse Helms era,” said Steve Ralls of New York-based Immigration Equality, referring to the late conservative North Carolina senator.
The ban meant those with HIV and AIDS were not allowed to enter the U.S. and noncitizens already here could not stay, dividing families and upending lives. While immigration officials have granted special waivers to some people with the illness, the process is complicated and expensive, attorneys say.
Only about a dozen countries – including Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Libya – have similar HIV travel restrictions.
“It’s not often that you get to do the right thing by science, as well as achieve some social justice and equity,” said Dr. Martin Cetron of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The repeal was supported by many human rights and public health organizations, from the American Medical Association to the World Health Organization, which have long said there was no medical basis for the sanction. The CDC, however, was required by statute to uphold the ban, said Cetron, director of the Division of Global Migration and Quarantine.
“It’s huge news for us,” said Kate Miller, a paralegal advocate at AIDS Legal Council of Chicago. “It’s not enough that people with HIV often lose their homes and their livelihoods … but the ban meant that they often lost their families, as well.”
Beyond affecting individual lives, the federal policy also tarnished America’s reputation abroad, undermining efforts to fight HIV/AIDS globally, advocates reported. It is one reason no major international AIDS conference has been held in the U.S. for almost 20 years.
Miller’s office has turned away “hundreds” of cases over the years.
“There’s nothing we can do for them,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking.”
The ban’s elimination is a testimony to persistence and Americans’ evolving attitudes about the disease, Miller said. When the CDC solicited feedback, it received more than 20,000 comments, the vast majority in favor of the repeal.
The process started during the Clinton administration but picked up momentum under George W. Bush, eager to build a legacy around his HIV work. As a candidate, Obama pledged to keep up the fight, culminating in the White House ceremony a month ago when it was announced the ban would end Jan. 4.
Until then, anyone applying for an immigrant visa will have to be tested for the infection during a medical exam, part of the process. Tourists could lie about their illness, but they risked being questioned or detained if HIV medications were found in their luggage, experts said.
For Dr. Heidemarie Kremer, the reprieve came just in time. The prominent AIDS researcher contracted the virus in 1988 as a 25-year-old medical student drawing blood in Germany.
Since 2001, she has been at the University of Miami, the only home her 9-year-old twins have known. It’s also where the physician has friends, work and a life. The HIV law meant if Kremer returned to Germany to visit her sick mother, she could not re-enter the U.S. She also needed to request a waiver from the federal government every two years to remain here.
Recently, Kremer’s luck ran out and her latest waiver request was denied. Despite her impressive academic credentials, immigration court initiated removal proceedings because of the infection, throwing the family into limbo. With the new rules and a court date that has been postponed, Kremer is optimistic but hardly complacent about her future.
“The stigma of HIV has been a greater burden than HIV itself,” she said.