People with HIV face few entry policies crueler than our own country’s: Here in the United States, applicants for immigrant visas, refugee status and legalization must all submit to HIV testing; those with the virus are turned away. Even visitors seeking short-term visas may be tested and denied entry if the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) suspects AIDS.

Since 1987, when President Reagan and Congress pressed the INS to add HIV to the list of “dangerous, contagious diseases for excluding persons from the United States,” the ban has sparked fierce debate. The right wing promoted the policy as a way to keep AIDS from becoming an epidemic on our shores and a burden to taxpayers. But scientists, public health officials and activists worldwide blasted the ban as bigotry because by then it was known that the virus isn’t “contagious” and that at least a million Americans already had HIV.

In 1989, en route to an AIDS meeting in San Francisco, Dutch HIV-prevention expert Hans Paul Verhoef was jailed for four days after Minneapolis INS officers discovered AZT in his suitcase. The arrest of an AIDS educator as a public health threat was widely condemned for adding gratuitous insult to gross injury. But despite the outcry, the Bush administration refused to lift the ban; instead it created 10-day waivers for noncitizens entering for medical treatments, scientific conferences or family visits. Then the Christian Action Network mounted a 35,000-postcard campaign to “keep out homosexuals with AIDS from other countries,” and AIDS activists mobilized three times as many antiban-ers.

In 1993, newly inaugurated President Clinton promised an executive order to end the restriction, but Congress attached an amendment to the NIH re-authorization adding HIV to the list of “communicable diseases for excluding people from the United States.” Clinton signed the bill, making the policy law. Now Congress alone--not the INS--can lift the ban. It took a court order for Clinton to move against perhaps the ban’s most hateful fallout--the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in which some 200 HIV positive Haitian political refugees were quarantined for as long as two years before it was closed.

In last year’s anti-immigrant atmosphere, changes in the law made it even harder for noncitizens to get a waver from the HIV exclusion. However, advocates’ pressure produced an INS statement that made it clear that a noncitizen who can prove he or she is a victim of HIV-related persecution may be granted asylum. But the burden of proof is heavy, and neither lack of medical care nor social ostracism alone qualifies as persecution.

Some 35 nations still require a negative HIV test result for entry. The United States keeps company with Iraq, Russia, Iran and Cuba in having perhaps the harshest restrictions. If you want to avoid the prospect of mandatory testing in far away lands, check your destination’s current entry requirements before heading out: Some test all noncitizens, some exempt tourists, some test only students and foreign workers, some exempt those under age 15, some don’t enforce their restrictions, some are just plain quirky. If testing is required and U.S. tests are accepted, ask for information about acceptable testing centers and test-result authentication.

Experience shows an immigration officer is most likely to stop a traveler who offers evidence--to the cop’s eye--of having HIV (carries meds or is disabled) or being gay (has gay books or “looks”). But cabaret performers, beware Cyprus, where only nightclub entertainers are tested.