There are few more symbolic ways in which a country can demonstrate its own desire to stigmatize people with HIV and AIDS than in its immigration policies. Until last week, the Bush administration made it technically illegal for any HIV-positive non-American to even enter the country. Yep, you couldn't attend an AIDS conference in the US if you were HIV-positive, without a special waiver. When the First Lady recently sat down with African women dealing with HIV for a photo-op, the press did not tell you that the White House had first to secure that waiver to even allow those women into the country, let alone the White House. We spend billions on AIDS drugs for Africa, but the survivors are barred from ever entering America. How does that make any sense?
This policy, mind you, was initiated under president Clinton, a man now devoted to doing out of office on HIV/AIDS what he refused to do while in office. And it is to the Bush administration's credit - and to the great credit of the new Global AIDS coordinator, Mark Dybul - that Bush has now issued an executive order making it unnecessary for HIV-positive visitors and tourists to seek a special waiver to enter America. Dybul said: "This administration is very serious about fighting discrimination on AIDS." Well, if it is, the Bush administration now has a chance to prove it beyond this tiny, if welcome, gesture. A legislative effort to remove HIV as a barrier to American citizenship and residence is long overdue. HIV is not a communicable disease like malaria or TB. It poses no similar public health threat and no other civilized country treats it the way the U.S. does. The law was passed at a time when ignorance of HIV and deep sigmatization of it were common. But the panic and fear of the 1980s and early 1990s has no place in a sane policy for the 21st century. We have come a long way, and this administration deserves kudos for helping remove some of the stigma. Just not far enough.