Green Card Negative

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

"There's even more stigma and ignorance around HIV in Trinidad than here," she says. "My parents just didn't think I could raise two children. They thought it was a huge risk to take my son back, because what if I died?"

Lopez decided to take the risk of retrieving him herself in 1995. She renewed her passport at the Trinidadian Consulate by saying she was applying for a green card. Then she said good-bye to the doctors, social workers, volunteers, and community of immigrants that had become her family.

"My doctor from the clinic was trying to make arrangements to get medication down to Trinidad for my daughter," she said. "Because they figured that we wouldn't make it back through customs."

By 1993, the World Health Organization had determined that there was no public health justification for restricting the travel or migration of people with HIV. But that year, when the Department of Health and Human Services prepared to lift the ban on HIV-positive immigrants, Congress quickly circumvented the department by writing the rule into law.
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.

In the U.S. House of Representatives, only two members of Congress spoke against the ban. One of them was New York City Democrat, Jerry Nadler; the other was Nancy Pelosi. They stood against nearly a dozen of their fellow representatives who argued strongly in favor of the prospective law.

"The issue here is whether we will single out AIDS from all other diseases and say that, unlike others which we know are highly contagious, we will write this one into law," Nadler argued from the House floor in 1993, imploring his colleagues to leave the decision in the hands of DHHS. "The question should be based on science, not based on politics, not based on fear."

But Nadler's objections were countered by the heated rhetoric of notorious homophobe Bob Dornan, a California Republican: "What we are talking about is letting people into this country in their young years, what liberals call raging-hormone-sexually-active years, into this country with a communicable disease that is always fatal," he said. "I am sorry. This is not the world's open hospital for people who can't pay and I am not going to let communicable diseased people into this country, because it will kill as sure as you and I stand here. It will kill Americans."

It was just three years after homosexuality itself had been removed from the list of "mental disorders" for which non-citizens could be barred from entering the country. But gay rights and AIDS activists, who had successfully lobbied for lifting the ban on homosexual immigration, remained silent on the issue of HIV-positive immigrants. In some ways, their hands were tied: The new law had been attached to the National Institutes of Health Reauthorization Act, which provided millions in federal funding for AIDS research.

"People were scared," says one AIDS activist in New York City who asked not to be named. "They thought opposing the immigration amendment might cost them in funding for AIDS research, and other AIDS-related programs."

In recent years, gay rights and immigration advocates have joined forces to lobby for the HIV-positive immigration ban's repeal, arguing that education and research are both more effective at combating the spread of HIV/AIDS, and less expensive.

According to Queers for Economic Justice, a Manhattan-based nonprofit advocacy group, an HIV-positive immigrant costs $95 a day to detain, but only $75 a day to treat.

Lopez landed at JFK from Trinidad with both of her children at around 11 on a night in 1995. Knowing that customs officials changed shifts around midnight, she had deliberately timed her arrival, reasoning that being processed by someone who was ready to go home would be her best chance of slipping through undetected. As she reached the front of the line, she began praying silently.

She tucked her Trinidad passport beneath her children's two U.S. passports, before handing them to the customs officer.

"Please God," she repeated, over and over in her head. The officer was Latino, maybe from the Caribbean, she thought.

"Ah, Lopez," he said, smiling at the passports, then greeted her in Spanish. Lopez smiled back, and they flirted in their native tongue as he processed her children's passports. When he reached hers, she explained that she was here for a short visit, just bringing her kids home to see their father.

"I'll give you a six-month stamp," he said. "How's that?" Lopez thanked him, saying it would be more than enough time. Then she gathered her children and luggage and headed toward the exit as quickly as she could without betraying her anxiousness. She did not indulge her sense of relief until she was in a cab, headed toward the Bronx.

"If that guy had typed my info into the computer, he would have seen that I was HIV-positive and that I was on PRUCOL," Michelle says. "I would still be in Trinidad. Or I would be dead."

The next day, she called everyone who knew that she had left the country. Most of them had not expected to hear from her again.

"I'm home," she announced, to shrieks of joy and tears of relief. "I made it back."

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