Green Card Negative

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


Immigration officials say that exclusions based on communicable diseases, including HIV/AIDS, are uncommon. They are also quick to point out that would-be immigrants who are HIV-positive can apply for an exception called an HIV waiver. But immigrants and legal advocates insist that stringent eligibility criteria make such waivers almost impossible to come by.

"The family and income requirements are twice as strict as those for a green card application," says Victoria Neilson, legal director with Immigration Equality, a Manhattan-based nonprofit that advocates for HIV-positive immigrants. "Among other things, you need a spouse or a child. That leaves out a lot of single people and most LGBT immigrants."

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.

Despite President Bush's recent offering of a short-term waiver, most people close to the issue agree the HIV-positive immigration ban is unlikely to be lifted in the current political climate.

"We need to re-frame this as a disability issue," said a spokeswoman from Representative Nadler's office. "Anything that's pro-immigrant is taboo right now."

Sixteen years after she first tested positive, Lopez is still waiting for some change in policy that might allow her to become a legal resident. "We should file a fucking class-action suit against the government. It's [U.S.] citizens that infected us, not the other way around."

Right now, however, her hopes are pinned not on a lawsuit but on her son, who will be able to petition for her green card and sponsor her accompanying HIV-waiver application when he turns 21 later this year.


"We keep counting the days," she tells the Voice from her desk at the Caribbean Health Center. "Every day my son says to me, 'Mom, it's only 'this many' more days.' "

Lopez already has big plans. Between taking calls from her clients and arranging meetings with one colleague or another, she talks of returning to Trinidad to establish a network of AIDS activists and promote HIV education.

"If you think the stigma is bad over here, my God," she says. "In Trinidad people just get sick and die—in silence."

Lopez has other reasons for wanting to return too.

"My dad's like 90 years old and my parents aren't in the best of health," she says, adding that she missed her family. "When I get back there, let me tell you what, it's going to be a big 'ol party. America is my home, but my heart is still in Trinidad."

In America, Lopez has become an out- spoken, and well-known, AIDS activist. She has spoken at dozens of conferences, co-authored papers on the HIV-positive immigrant community, and has served on the boards of directors for several HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention programs, at both the state and city level. She also participated in a successful class-action lawsuit against the federal government, demanding that women of child-bearing age be allowed to participate in NIH-funded clinical trials.

"I'm not a social worker," she says, referring to her qualifications. "But I have a degree from UCLA—the University of the Corner of Lenox Avenue." Today, Lopez's reach extends well beyond the streets of New York. As a member of the National Institutes of Health's AIDS Clinical Trial Group, she currently works with NIH doctors and clinicians to develop protocols for including HIV-positive immigrants in clinical trials.

"I'm proud of the work I do," she says. "But it's ironic that I could work with the NIH on HIV issues and then still not be allowed to get a green card because I have HIV."

Three years ago, when Lopez was invited to serve on the board of directors for the National Association of People With AIDS (NAPWA), she says some of the board members questioned the decision.

"They called and asked me, 'Michelle do you even have legal status to do this?'" she says. "Some of them wanted to keep me off the board because of it. I said, 'How dare you. I'll fucking go to the media. I'll tell everyone you did this.' " Several of her colleagues intervened and Lopez was ultimately given the post.

"As soon as I got in there, I started a special committee to work on discrimination against undocumented immigrants with HIV," she says. "If you want to survive, you can't let your immigration status be a barrier to addressing your HIV status. That's what taking a stand is all about."

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