HIV/AIDS policy is hardly the gripping stuff of tax cuts or universal health care proposals in the mind of the average American. But in the wake of World AIDS Day celebrations earlier this month, it's gaining increased attention in the nation's capital.
That's thanks to a political "odd couple" -- the Bush administration and a bloc of 36 Democratic House members, including Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wa. Both want changes to existing policy under which the Department of Homeland Security must issue a waiver in order for HIV-positive foreigners to obtain a visa and travel to the U.S. But the two don't quite agree on what those changes should encompass.
McDermott and his colleagues favor outright repeal of the policy often dubbed the "HIV travel ban," which was codified in a 1993 law. In fact, they have introduced the HIV Non-discrimination in Travel and Immigration Act to do just that. Their primary rationales for ending the policy are that it has "no basis in public health" and entails the "violation of human rights."
There's another reason why repeal looks good to them. The U.S. is one of just 13 countries worldwide that limits the ability of HIV-positive foreigners to travel and immigrate to them, via statute. That puts us in the same category as Iraq, Libya, Saudi Arabia and Sudan.
Those are the kind of policy allies that McDermott and his colleagues worry about the U.S. keeping -- at least if the ban is not scrapped, but rather revised. Nonetheless, modification, as opposed to repeal, is the preferred course of the administration, which is moving forward with a proposal to "streamline" the process by which HIV-positive people can gain entry to this country.
In practice, this means DHS establishing a categorical waiver for HIV-positive individuals seeking to enter on short-term visas, such as those available for stays of 30 days or less. That, in turn, would mean consulates would become solely responsible for decision-making relevant to the issuance or denial of a visa -- and potentially far fewer bureaucratic headaches for HIV-positive foreigners wanting in.
Not according to McDermott and his colleagues, however. They say the burden on HIV-positive would-be travelers here will be little reduced, courtesy of the administration's proposed policy shift. A non-medical professional will still need to make a judgment call about issuing a visa to someone deemed a threat under the actual policy. In addition, say McDermott and the other co-sponsors of the repeal bill, an applicant will not be able to appeal a consular official's decision. Plus, visa applicants will have to give up the right to apply for a longer stay, or permanent residency, once in the country -- something they say is not required, as it stands.
That makes the proposed administration policy look like a step backward to many activists focused on gay rights and HIV/AIDS-related issues, despite the administration's use of terms like "streamlined" to describe it. As Victoria Neilson, legal director of Immigration Equality, put it, speaking to Doug Ireland of the Gay City News last month, "This is a big disappointment, given the rhetoric of the Bush administration that the U.S. was making it easier ... the new regs simply add more heavy burdens for the HIV-positive traveler." Neilson and others would no doubt prefer to see the bill backed by McDermott move forward. But, the question is, will it?
McDermott has high hopes. He says the bill will roll forward into the second session of the 110th Congress (meaning it will not depart the scene together with the Capitol Christmas tree in a just a few weeks). That will present the opportunity to attract more co-sponsors, over and above the quarter of them (roughly) who have been brought on board in the last two weeks.
Still, the subject matter of the bill is likely to prove tricky for many. Other representatives may prefer a more conservative approach -- both in terms of philosophy and methodology -- to dealing with the problems associated with the current policy. Add to that the congressional leadership's continued focus on such big-ticket items as Iraq, health care and government oversight -- focus that is likely to sharpen further as the 2008 election approaches -- and it's likely that the bill could go nowhere.
McDermott and the other 35 House Democrats backing it will be hoping to avoid such an end, to be sure. However, in this case, hope may prove to be not quite enough.