WASHINGTON – On World AIDS Day last month the White House said new rules would soon make it easier for people with HIV/AIDS to travel to the United States. Democratic lawmakers and gay rights groups are complaining that the regulations proposed by the Homeland Security Department could actually create more barriers.
Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., said Tuesday that the proposal "offers little of value to HIV-positive applicants."
"It imposes strict requirements that unfairly limit travel to the United States," Kennedy said after chairing a Senate health committee hearing on the Bush administration's international AIDS efforts. "It is mired in the past, a past where people feared HIV as a contagious disease that could not be controlled or effectively managed."
Bebe Anderson, HIV project director at the gay civil rights group Lambda Legal, said the rules were "inappropriate based on medicine and public health concerns."
Gay rights advocates have long opposed a 1993 federal law that strictly restricts travel and immigration to the U.S. by HIV-positive people, arguing it's discriminatory. Foreigners with the virus can obtain visas only after receiving a waiver from the Homeland Security Department in a cumbersome process that requires approval from DHS headquarters.
The White House says it wants to make the process easier for HIV-positive people seeking 30-day stays. As President Bush observed World AIDS Day on Nov. 30, the administration announced the publication of regulations meant to speed up the process.
"The administration is working to end discrimination against people living with HIV/AIDS," said a White House fact sheet. "A 'categorical waiver' will enable HIV-positive people to enter the United States for short visits through a streamlined process."
The rule proposed by the Department of Homeland Security would allow short-term visas to be granted to HIV-positive people by U.S. consulates in their home countries, cutting out the involvement of DHS headquarters and thus speeding up the process. However, applicants would have to agree to certain conditions, including giving up the right to apply for a longer stay or permanent residency in the U.S.
In a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, more than two dozen Democratic House members objected that the changes don't lessen the burden on HIV-positive people, instead shifting authority to "local consular officers who may lack the appropriate medical expertise."
"There would be no appeal process," said the letter released Monday by Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif. "Selecting this pathway would also require applicants to waive any right to readjust their status once in the United States — a waiver not required under current policy."
Homeland Security Spokeswoman Veronica Valdes contended the new rule does provide a streamlined process for HIV-positive visitors. She had no immediate response to Lee's letter, saying the department would review it.
The comment period on the proposed rule closed last Thursday. Valdes couldn't say when a final rule would be published.
Gay rights activists say the U.S. is one of just a handful of countries that restrict travel for HIV-positive people. Lee has introduced legislation to overturn the ban, and Lambda Legal and other gay-rights groups are advocating its passage.