IT'S time for the United States to end its 21-year-long ban on people with HIV visiting or immigrating to the country. The ban is wrong and discriminatory.
It was first implemented in 1987, when the public was understandably fearful about the newly identified virus, which can cause AIDS. But now, with considerably more known about the treatment and prevention of this still-incurable affliction, a bipartisan effort to repeal the ban has properly begun.
Despite an attempt to block it, the Senate last week approved repeal of a law barring HIV-positive visitors and immigrants from entering the country. This provision should be retained in conference committee with the House to ensure it is part of the final legislation sent to the White House for President Bush's signature.
Democrat John Kerry of Massachusetts and Republican Gordon Smith of Oregon co-sponsored the measure, which was tacked onto legislation tripling spending - up to $48 billion over the next five years - for a much-acclaimed program that fights AIDS and other diseases in Africa and other parts of the world.
The Kerry-Smith amendment would make HIV equivalent to other communicable diseases for which terms for admission to the country are set by medical and public health experts at the Health and Human Services Department rather than consular officials. HIV is the only medical condition explicitly listed under immigration law.
"There's no excuse for a law that stigmatizes a particular disease," said Mr. Kerry, adding that people with avian flu or the Ebola virus have an easier time than those with HIV in getting a visa.
Repealing the blanket ban still would require those with the disease to demonstrate that they have the resources to live as permanent residents and would not become a "public charge."
Some 160 health and AIDS advocacy groups sent a letter to Congress urging lawmakers to end the policy. It noted that the International Conference on AIDS has not been held on U.S. soil since 1993 because of the ban, and the law has blocked "health-care professionals, researchers, and other exceptionally talented people" from coming to America.
Even China, Mr. Kerry said, decided recently to change its immigration policy and to "move beyond an antiquated, knee-jerk reaction" of shunning people with HIV. As he put it, the United States should end a ban "adopted during a time of widespread fear and ignorance" that has long since passed.