Action Alert: Immigration Ban

AIDS TREATMENT NEWS    Issue #170   March 5, 1993

The U.S. Senate passed an amendment to the National Institutes of Health Reauthorization Bill on Feb. 18 that would make the current Bush Administration policy to ban immigration for people with HIV into law. Called the Nichols Amendment, it excludes any foreigner with HIV from entering the United States, although it allows the U.S. Attorney General to waive the ban for non-immigrants who want to enter for 30 days or less for educational or medical conferences, family visits, tourism, and certain other purposes. As AIDS TREATMENT NEWS goes to press, the amendment has not yet come before the House of Representatives.

AIDS activists have fought since 1987 to remove the HIV immigration restrictions because they discriminate against people with HIV and further the spread of the epidemic by driving immigrants at risk of HIV infection underground.

The situation has worsened in the last 15 months with the U.S. Government's imprisonment of Haitian refugees at Guantanamo Bay. Action alerts from many organizations -- including ACT UP, the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, the Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights and the International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission -- have gone out in the past weeks urging a nationwide response to the amendment and the treatment of Haitian refugees.

These 268 men, women and children were interviewed by the Immigration and Naturalization Service and were found to have "credible fears of persecution" if forced to return to Haiti. They are being held under substandard conditions solely because of their HIV status. Last March, James Mason, the conservative Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services, warned the INS that "the presence of a large number of HIV-infected individuals held for long periods of time in a camp environment is likely to result in significantly increased public health risks." The refugees, including 19 pregnant women and 41 children, are surrounded by barbed wire and housed in make-shift shelters that leak when it rains, are infested with rats, snakes and scorpions, and have only wash basins and portable toilets. Two teenagers have tried to commit suicide and more than 100 have been on a hunger strike for a month. "It seems that they do not know that just like them, we are people too," a letter signed by the hunger strikers said. "We would rather die because we have realized that because we are black, we are being mistreated in order for us to die."

The Clinton Administration has the authority to allow the Haitian refugees into the U.S. under the humanitarian parole provisions in immigration law. We urge all our readers to please call the White House comment line (202/456-1111) to ask that Clinton free the refugees.

Arguments Against the Ban

The Nichols Amendment to make the current immigration ban into law gained widespread public, media and political support despite the urgings of the AIDS community. There are many reasons to oppose this ban:

* The HIV exclusion unfairly sets people with HIV apart from other diseases and disabilities, despite the fact that HIV is not transmitted casually. It plays into hostility and hatred toward people with AIDS, and offers the false security that the epidemic can somehow be stopped by closing our borders.

* Because the great majority of new immigrants coming to the U.S. are from countries with low rates of HIV infection, this law mostly affects immigrants who have lived in this country for several years, work here, pay taxes here, paid for health insurance here -- and were infected here. Now these people face deportation.

* Fear of deportation drives people underground. The overwhelming lesson of the first decade of the AIDS epidemic is that to stop the spread of HIV, we must offer anonymous testing without any punitive consequences. People who are afraid of deportation will not come forward to get the testing and education they need to improve their own health and learn about how to avoid spreading the virus.

Cost Argument Fallacies

The argument most often used to support the ban is that it will overburden the health care system and cost millions of tax dollars to provide indigent medical services. This argument has many fallacies:

* With the most expensive health care system in the industrialized world and no nationally funded health care system, the United States is hardly the choice of someone seeking free health care.

* Only the small number of persons with HIV who are otherwise qualified to immigrate to the United States are at issue. The immigration law requires people to have a job or family that can support them.

* The numbers used to scare people take an estimated average cost of care for a person who dies of AIDS ($100,000), and then multiply this figure by an estimate of all potential immigrants with HIV. This does not take into account the fact that only 50 percent of all the people with HIV have so far progressed to AIDS, that those otherwise qualified to immigrate to the United States usually join family here or have jobs that provide health coverage, and that many people with HIV lead long productive lives beyond their AIDS diagnosis.

* The costs of imprisoning refugees such as the Haitians, and for providing health care in the future because we failed to address prevention strategies in immigrant communities, far outweigh the potential costs of providing care now.

* Historically, immigrants have been scapegoated because it is believed that they hurt the economy and cost taxpayers money. But a July 1992 article in Business Week reported that "immigration has proved to be a powerful, pervasive economic stimulant." The cover story showed that immigrants pay an estimated $90 billion in taxes, compared with the $5 billion in welfare benefits they receive; that a quarter of all immigrants have college degrees, a slightly higher average than their American-born counterparts; and that with their bilingual skills, overseas family ties and entrepreneurial know-how, they are a crucial link to the exporting of U.S. goods and services. * A Canadian study found that Canadian immigration was not hurting their national health care system, and that HIV was a drop in the bucket compared to immigrants with heart disease.

Take Action

To help oppose this law, please take a few minutes to call your Congressional representatives and voice your opinion. The Congressional Switchboard is (202) 224-3121. Or you can call your representative's local office.

The call will only take a few moments as the staff only wants to hear your position, not a well-reasoned argument. A typical call goes something like this: "Hello, I'm a constituent and I want to register my opinion. Please tell _________ that I oppose any immigration restrictions based on HIV status and that I want the Haitian refugees at Guantçnamo Bay released immediately." The staff is doing their job properly if they ask for your name and address.

Personal letters to your political representatives are also helpful as are letters to your local newspaper. If you want to volunteer to work more actively on this issue, call Tomas Fabregas at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, 415/487/3034.


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