Green Card Negative

We haven't been able to keep out immigrants based on their HIV status. But should we worry about it?

It's 1992. Lou Dobbs is still just a CNN business-news honcho. He hasn't gone off to launch or made his re-entry to Ted Turner's network for his populist anti-immigration phase. But even then, 15 years ago, Dobbs might have gone ballistic if he'd seen what Michelle Lopez was up to.

She was an illegal immigrant committing a crime.

It was after dark, and the office at the Bronx homeless shelter Lopez was breaking into was empty. Lopez had an accessory—a security guard who agreed to look the other way in exchange for promised sexual favors. While he stood lookout, Lopez picked the lock on a door, entered the office, turned on a small desk lamp, and then quickly rummaged through a pile of papers on a desk and searched a filing cabinet.

Michelle Lopez says she faces a stark choice due to her HIV status: death in Trinidad or life as an illegal U.S. immigrant.
photo: Alana Cundy
Michelle Lopez says she faces a stark choice due to her HIV status: death in Trinidad or life as an illegal U.S. immigrant.

She found the folder she was looking for, copied down a name and phone number on a scrap of paper, glanced around to make sure she hadn't left a mess, and hurried back out of the office to her own room in the shelter.

Then she braced herself, waiting for the security guard to show up and demand his promised night of sex.

Lopez had broken into the supervisor's office at the shelter where she had been living for nearly a year, because she believed it was her best, and only, way to find an apartment for herself and her 20-month-old daughter, Raven.

Her case manager at the shelter had not had any luck finding her an apartment, in part because of her immigration status—she was ineligible for a green card.

She was deportable to her native Trinidad. And that made her a tough sell to landlords. She watched others at the shelter get apartments in just a few weeks. But she waited and waited. Then a friend tipped her off: A citywide nonprofit housing program could place Lopez in an apartment regardless of her visa issues. She was told that the woman who ran the shelter had information about the program in a folder in her office. But when Lopez asked the woman about it, she denied that the program existed.

So Lopez decided to steal the information. Soon after doing just that, she heard the security guard pounding on her door, demanding his pound of flesh. But Lopez double-crossed him by screaming out, accusing him of trying to attack her.

"I caused a whole big ruckus that night," Lopez laughs, remembering the incident. "I knew he wanted to get with me, and I knew he couldn't say anything about what we did because he'd lose his job."

The next morning, while whispers passed through the shelter's dank corridors about how she'd played the security guard, Lopez went to the hallway pay phone and dialed the number she'd found in the office.

"I acted like I was a case manager and referred myself," she recalls. "The woman told me what information I would need for 'my client' and I wrote it all down." Then Lopez called her actual case manager and told her everything.

"Three weeks later, I had an apartment in the Bronx."

What made Michelle Lopez deportable was the medical condition that she'd acquired while she was living in the United States.

From Raven's father, a New York City-born U.S. citizen, she had contracted HIV, and passed it to her daughter during pregnancy. Both were receiving treatment at a nearby clinic through New York's AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP), a federally funded program that does not discriminate on the basis of citizenship.

If the federal government funded her drug regimen, however, it wasn't about to issue her a green card.

Since 1987, when testing positive for HIV still implied a death sentence, the U.S. has barred immigrants with the virus. Designed to slow the spread of AIDS and prevent a burden of infected immigrants on the nation's health care system, the policy has failed on both counts, say its critics. Because immigrants with HIV can't get green cards, they can't get the sorts of jobs that come with health care, forcing them to rely on programs like ADAP. And because they face the possibility of deportation, many opt not to get tested or treated, increasing the likelihood of spreading the virus to others. So instead of lowering the infection rate and lessening the burden on taxpayer-funded health programs, the policy may be doing the exact opposite.

But proponents of barring HIV-positive immigrants point out that the U.S. has had long-standing policies protecting the nation from other communicable diseases brought from other shores. Prospective immigrants must pass medical exams that include tests for eight communicable diseases, including infectious tuberculosis, leprosy, and HIV. All foreign visitors, even those on short stays, are asked to declare if they carry communicable infections. Unlike other conditions, however, being HIV-positive is singled out by U.S. law. Policies regulating TB or leprosy are set by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and can be changed on its recommendation. But only an act of Congress can change the ban against HIV.

Facing long-standing opposition to the policy by AIDS and immigration activists, however, President George W. Bush, on Worlds AIDS Day last December, appeared to blink. He announced that he would order the Department of Homeland Security to implement a "categorical waiver" for HIV-positive non-citizens seeking short-term visits. Still to be implemented, the change would be the first in the 20-year history of the ban. But the policy's critics remain skeptical.

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