Green Card Negative

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

Rules for the policy change were supposed to be released in March, but they were delayed. Would visitors to the U.S., for example, be required to submit to a more stringent screening than simply declare on a form whether they were carrying a disease? (A question, that is, which no one doubts some HIV-positive visitors simply lie about.) Would Bush go so far as to require visitors to submit to blood tests? It's hard to imagine visiting foreign businesspeople, entertainers, and just plain tourists giving blood samples in return for short-term visas, but some people advocate just that as the only way to combat visitors who don't admit they carry HIV.

Either way, a short-term waiver won't affect the thousands of HIV-positive undocumented immigrants like Lopez who already reside in the United States. Many, like her, say they contracted the virus while they were living here. Lopez says she now has a simple choice: death in Trinidad, or life as an illegal immigrant in the U.S.

To opponents of the ban, she's a potent symbol for reform.

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.

But for the Lou Dobbs contingent, Lopez's fascinating history, including her creative handling of locked office doors and horny border agents may make her a symbol for the exact opposite.

Lopez was the last of six children in a devoutly Catholic, working-class Trinidad family. She says that from the ages of seven to 11, she was sexually abused by her godparents' three sons, something she did not tell anyone until much later in life. It wasn't her only secret: that she was attracted to both men and women also remained hidden for several years.

Homophobia in Trinidad was virulent, and suspected homosexuals were routinely harassed and beaten. Before long, the weight of Lopez's private despair had overwhelmed her: At 16, she attempted suicide for the second time in two years. Her mother, hoping a change of place would help, arranged for Lopez to stay with relatives in the U.S. In 1984, Lopez came to New York on a visa and settled in East Flatbush with her aunt.

Two years later, Lopez had obtained a G.E.D. and was working toward an associates degree from a local technical college. She had moved into an apartment with two women she knew from Trinidad. In Brooklyn, it was OK for Lopez to be attracted to other women.

Lopez says she believed her visa was good for 10 years. Experts, however, tell the Voice Lopez is likely mistaken; she was probably an unwitting "illegal immigrant" after only six months. It's a common error among new arrivals. But for years, Lopez assumed she had time to change her immigration status. She managed to find employment through a temp agency that didn't check for work authorization. Eventually, she secured a permanent job—doing computer billing for a perfume accessory company—by making up a social security number. But the fear of eventually being caught and deported haunted her constantly.

Citizenship would erase those concerns, but the rules were clear: In order to become naturalized, you had to get a green card. In order to get a green card, you had to have a parent, spouse, sibling, or adult child who was already a citizen and could vouch for you. Unlike her roommates, Lopez did not have a qualifying relative. For her, legal permanent residence was contingent upon finding a husband.

"I had pinned my hopes on some man to come save me, and to give me a sense of family," she said. "It made me even more vulnerable than I already was."

Lopez chased her green-card dreams through a string of boyfriends. She says that some of them beat her and a lot of them did or sold drugs, but all were U.S. citizens and most of them, at one point or another, had promised to marry her. By the time she found out she had contracted HIV, she'd been living in East Flatbush for eight years. She had two children, no husband, and two years left until her visa expired.

Believing that she and her daughter would eventually die from AIDS, shortly after she learned about her HIV-positive status, Lopez sent her 4-year-old son to Trinidad to be raised by his grandparents. But four years later, she was ready to take him back. By then, she and Raven had been through dozens of medications and were both on stable drug regimens that kept their T-cell counts up without making them sick. Lopez's visa had expired, but Gay Men's Health Crisis, a nonprofit agency in Manhattan, was working to help her stay in the country. When her T-cell count dropped below 200, her lawyer at GMHC was able to secure her PRUCOL status (permanent resident under the color of law)—a sort of amnesty that came with work-authorization and Medicaid-eligibility. With that, Lopez was able to parlay the years of volunteer work she'd been doing at the same HIV clinic that had been treating her into a full-time job.

"Under color of law" meant that technically, Lopez was still an illegal immigrant; if she left the country, she would not be allowed back in. But she wanted to retrieve her son, and her parents would not bring him to her.

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