POZ Exclusives : Socks? Check. Passport? Check. HIV meds? Hmm... - by Lucile Scott

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December 13, 2006

Socks? Check. Passport? Check. HIV meds? Hmm...

by Lucile Scott

Perhaps you’re packing for a trip to the U.S. and find yourself confused by President Bush’s World AIDS Day promise to ease the 1987 law barring HIV positive foreigners from crossing U.S. borders. So many have stayed away these 19 years or simply kept their status a secret (disguising meds in Tylenol bottles or vitamin dispensers). Dare you finally consider that trip to Disneyland or that New Orleans AIDS conference?

Not so fast, say immigration watchers. “The White House announcement was very vague,” says Nancy Ordover, PhD, who handles federal policy issues at the New York-based Gay Men’s Health Crisis. But one thing is for sure: Only “short-term” positive visitors will be welcome, and that leaves the core policy intact.

“I don’t consider it much of an improvement for the president to say he will discriminate against people with HIV a bit less,” says Bernard Forbes, who runs the UK Coalition of People Living With HIV and AIDS. “It still makes us second-class citizens in the eyes of the American government.”

Nor would the change mean anything for HIV positive immigrants already in the U.S. because they continue to risk deportation. "It seems a Band-Aid to a really bad policy,” says Adam Francouer of Immigration Equality, who says fear of deportation keeps so many immigrants from getting tested or seeking treatment that the policy itself is a threat to public health.

Even Steve Hemraj, a 35-year-old from Guyana who is allowed to come and go as he likes because he has political asylum here, will continue to hide his HIV status when he travels abroad—just in case he encounters a customs official who’s confused enough about the law to block his reentry. “My attorney also tells me to make sure I have no HIV meds when coming back,” he says.

Under the current U.S. system (still in place until the White House issues a more precise version of the Bush announcement in coming weeks or months), foreigners with HIV can request a special waiver to travel freely for a few days. But the waivers are hard to come by, and after that, a showy HIV+ stamp follows you around the globe in your passport.

On the other hand, concealing your HIV status on a trip to the U.S. can be nerve-racking. “Every time, there’s a nervous moment when I worry about [customs officials] searching my bags and finding my meds,” says one HIV positive Brit (who requested anonymity because he travels without disclosing).

It can also be hazardous to your health. According to a 2003 British study, one in eight HIV positive visitors to the U.S. experiences some kind of treatment interruption. Often, they’ve shipped their pills in advance of their trips to avoid airport detection, but the packages arrive late—or they’ve been detained for deportation. “We have clients detained for months and months,” says Ordover, who says you can forget about steady treatment access in most federal holding cells.

This is not to mention the effects of AIDS community boycotts, such as the International AIDS Society’s decision never to hold any of its International AIDS Conferences in the U.S., even though President Bush would likely grant waivers to international conferencegoers (as he has for the Gay Games, for instance).

Hope is high that the new Democratic Congress will overturn the HIV travel ban in its entirety at some point soon. The jig does seem to be up: Only 15 other nations maintain similar policies, and public health experts long ago won the argument that HIV doesn’t belong  (alongside leprosy and tuberculosis) on the list of diseases with border-patrol solutions.

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