President Obama announced an end to the HIV Travel and Immigration Ban during the signing ceremony for the vital Ryan White HIV/AIDS Treatment Extension Act this afternoon.
The travel ban, a legacy of Jesse Helms, has been in place since 1987. It prevented HIV+ non-U.S. citizens from traveling or immigrating to the United States unless granted a special waiver from the the Department of Homeland Security.
Twenty-two years ago, in a decision rooted in fear rather than fact, the United States instituted a travel ban on entry into the country for people living with HIV/AIDS. Now, we talk about reducing the stigma of this disease -- yet we've treated a visitor living with it as a threat. We lead the world when it comes to helping stem the AIDS pandemic -- yet we are one of only a dozen countries that still bar people from HIV from entering our own country.
If we want to be the global leader in combating HIV/AIDS, we need to act like it. And that's why, on Monday my administration will publish a final rule that eliminates the travel ban effective just after the New Year. Congress and President Bush began this process last year, and they ought to be commended for it. We are finishing the job. It's a step that will encourage people to get tested and get treatment, it's a step that will keep families together, and it's a step that will save lives.
Congress passed the policy reversal last summer under the leadership of Sens. John Kerry (D-MA) and Gordon Smith (D-OR) and Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA); former President George W. Bush signed it into law, but the Administration was unable to finalize the change before his term ended.
The new regulation eliminates any travel and immigration restrictions that are tied to a person's HIV status. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) put the wheels of change in motion in late June by publishing the proposed regulation to the federal register, which triggered a 45-day public comment period. HHS has now sent the final change to the Office of Management and Budget for approval, but the source said HHS would not be able to fully implement the new regulation for another 60 days following the president's announcement.
In the intervening months, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has directed its officers to place holds on any decisions regarding green card applications that are based solely on an individual's HIV status pending full implementation of the new rule.
Immigration Equality, which has been pushing for lifting the restrictions, had this to say:
We are proud to have been part of a tremendous coalition, including Senator John Kerry, former Senator Gordon Smith, and Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who have worked tirelessly to repeal this ban. Every day, Immigration Equality hears from individuals and families who have been separated because of the ban, with no benefit to the public health. Now, those families can be reunited, and the United States can put its mouth where its money is: ending the stigma that perpetuates HIV transmission, supporting science, and welcoming those who seek to build a life in this country. Today's announcement is proof that immigration laws that separate families and stigmatize communities are always destined to fail.
Also key was the extension of the Ryan White Act. The three-year extension of the lifesaving legislation funds an array of innovative and effective services that form the healthcare safety net for uninsured and underinsured Americans living with HIV/AIDS. According to the Government Accountability Office, the program helps about 500,000 annually.
The Ryan White Care Act, first enacted in 1990, is the nation's largest federally funded program for people living HIV/AIDS.