Battle of the Ban

Obama takes final steps to lift decades-old HIV travel ban by early 2010

In August of 2008, Ron MacInnis, a gay Petworth resident working in HIV policy and prevention, grabbed headlines speaking at the 17th International AIDS Conference in Mexico City.

“It’s blatantly discriminatory to single out people with HIV,” MacInnis told conference attendees, regarding the U.S. HIV travel ban. “It’s stupid and ridiculous. These restrictions are really impeding our ability to control HIV and AIDS.”

At the time, MacInnis’s remarks followed an effort begun by the George W. Bush administration to end the nation’s policy of more than two decades — begun as a policy under President Reagan and essentially made law by the late Sen. Jessie Helms (R-N.C.) — that bars HIV-positive foreign nationals from entering or remaining in the U.S. With his work as director of policy and programs for the Geneva-based International AIDS Society (IAS), it’s not surprising that MacInnis was at another conference, this time the United States Conference on AIDS in San Francisco, as another president, Barack Obama, announced the final step in ending the travel ban once and for all.

As Obama signed the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Treatment Extension Act of 2009 at the White House Oct. 30, MacInnis and his fellow conference attendees were well aware that the ceremony would include an announcement that Obama was taking the final step to lift the ban.

“It’s great. It’s the final step in a long battle,” MacInnis said shortly after the president signed the legislation. “We’ve been trying to repeal this for 22 years. There have been attempts over the past decades to overturn it, but they’ve always failed. It’s long overdue.

“The ban prevents HIV-positive people from visiting family, migrating for work, coming here for school, seeking asylum, coming her for vacation or adopting an HIV-positive child from another country — all those sorts of normal, everyday functions of living…. And when you’re able to be out about your status, you’re less likely to infect people. This is a good thing for everyone. Hopefully, other countries will follow suit.”

Obama offered a similar view at the signing ceremony.

“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,” the president said.

For a full list of HIV-related travel bans from around the world, the IAS has created a detailed website, hivrestrictions.org. With an optimistic tone, MacInnis added, “We’re going to have to update that.”

Another group, Immigration Equality, a New York-based group advocating for immigration rights for LGBT and HIV-positive people by fighting to lift the travel ban, among many other efforts, will be offering free and confidential legal counsel to anyone who may be affected by the changing policy. To access that service, call 212-714-2904.

Follow Will O'Bryan on Twitter @wobryan.