Monday, August 25, 2008

Freedom, Liberty and Justice..... for some

A first person account regarding the devastating personal
toll of the U.S. HIV immigration and travel ban...

by Mark Hammann

[Mark, pictured above left, with his partner Robert, is a gay men's outreach worker in Ontario, Canada]

Put simply, it is a disgrace, a blight upon our nation’s landscape.

I was fortunate enough to attend the 2008 International AIDS Conference in Mexico City. While attending the conference, I was rather shocked and disappointed at how many people working in the field of HIV/AIDS from the States were still unaware of the U.S. ban on travel and immigration for HIV+ people and its impact. The ban not only has affected people from other countries but American citizens like me. If people working in HIV/AIDS are unaware, then how many in the general population are unaware of this injustice? I felt it was important for me to speak upabout this matter and bring light to this issue and how far reaching its impact has been. I strongly believe that if more people were aware, they would demand that their elected officials push the appropriate government agencies to completely lift these restrictions.

How did this ban affect an American citizen like me?

In 2000, I was running a support group for older HIV+ gay men in Asheville, NC when I met a Canadian who had been living in the States for 13 years. He had just found out that he was HIV+. Over time we fell in love. As a PHA myself, I knew that if we were to stay together I would have to leave my homeland because of the ban on non-US citizens living with HIV. That ban prevented HIV+ visitors to the US (even those just passing through) and definitely meant no hope of immigration.

We are angry towards a government that has ignored the very words of our pledge of allegiance, “with Liberty and Justice for all.”

As a result of the ban, we moved to Canada in 2005. Life in Canada has been good. We own a home. My spouse works, and I returned to work from 10 years of disability as a Gay Men’s Outreach Worker for the AIDS Committee of Durham Region. It seems like a happy ending to the story. However, we still have the pain of losing our home, friends and family in North Carolina, and we are angry towards a government that has ignored the very words of our pledge of allegiance, “with Liberty and Justice for all."

As an American, what upsets me the most isn’t that I had to move to Canada. After all, as I’ve stated, our life here has been good. What upsets me is the feeling of being let down, and worse, being betrayed by my country - the country I so dearly love. The United States government speaks of freedom, liberty and justice, so how could it have allowed a situation like this to occur? It’s not only that I would like to be able to return to the US with my spouse, if I choose to do so. For me, the bigger issue is the principle of the matter: human rights, dignity and equality. In my mind, what has been going on for over twenty years now is un-American. In conclusion, it shatters everything that our Constitution and Bill of Rights stand for. Put simply, it is a disgrace, a blight upon our nation’s landscape.

The good news is the ban on HIV travel and immigration has just been repealed by Congress. However, at this point, we do not know as to what extent the ban will be repealed for people traveling or trying to immigrate to the US. It now becomes the decision of Health and Human Services as to what conditions a person must meet for immigration. So far, the news for change seems very positive, but I feel we shouldn’t let down our guard. We all still need to speak up and enlighten our fellow citizens and those in power. We need to make U.S. citizens aware of how people have been affected and continue to be affected by this unjust law. Let’s hope that our nation will reawaken and help return some of the meaning to those words, “with Liberty and Justice for All.”

For more on this issue,
check out the Immigration Equality blog.

IRMA recently held a global teleconference on this issue, in collaboration with Gay Men's Health Crisis. Click here for a PowerPoint used on the call, and other resources.

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