It’s 1992. Lou Dobbs is still just a CNN business-news honcho. He hasn’t gone off to launch space.com 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”