A harrowing encounter between an HIV-positive Canadian travelling to the United States and a U.S. border guard has helped thrust a long-standing but little-known law back into the political ring.
The U.S. Senate is expected to vote next month on a bill proposed by Massachusetts Senator John Kerry that would lift what he calls a Draconian travel ban that has caused thousands of Canadians and other foreigners to be refused entry to the United States because they have the virus that causes AIDS.
Martin Rooney is among them.
The Surrey, B.C., man was on his way to Bellingham, Wash., for the Remembrance Day long weekend last November to shop, with the Canadian dollar trading at about $1.07 against the greenback. After lining up for four hours to reach the U.S. customs booth, he was asked where he worked.
"I said I was on disability. He said what's my disability. I said I have HIV," said the 47-year-old, who was diagnosed in 1989.
The customs officer told him he needed a special visa waiver to enter the country, even though Canadians do not require a visa to travel to the United States.
"He hauled me into a backroom. ... He put on a set of rubber gloves to hold each of my fingers. Nobody else wore rubber gloves. Then he fingerprinted me, photographed me, ran me through the FBI's most-wanted list and told me to go back to Canada and not return until I came back with a waiver," Mr. Rooney said. "I felt like I was being treated like a terrorist."
He went public with his story soon after, winning the support of several B.C. members of Parliament, including Hedy Fry, Penny Priddy and Bill Siksay.
The United States is one of 13 nations, including China, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Sudan, that still ban HIV-positive visitors and immigrants.
Under the Immigration and Nationality Act, in place since 1987, the U.S. secretary of Health and Human Services has the authority to determine what constitutes "communicable diseases of public health significance" that would prevent non-U.S. citizens from entering the country. HIV is the only medical condition singled out as a basis for inadmissibility under the law.
"This law was written when little was known about the disease and destructive stigmas often won the day," Mr. Kerry, a Democrat, wrote in an e-mailed statement to The Globe and Mail. "With new knowledge about the disease, we must make it clear that this discriminatory, Draconian law will no longer be tolerated."
His bill, inserted as an amendment to President George W. Bush's $50-billion global AIDS relief package, was approved this month by the Senate foreign relations committee.
It is now up for a full vote on the Senate floor before it can move to the House of Representatives, where California Democratic congresswoman Barbara Lee has championed it.
"People shouldn't have to worry, [they]shouldn't have to live in the shadows of any disease," she said in an interview yesterday, praising Mr. Rooney for making his story public. "It's very courageous of him to do what he did and I just hope that we can get rid of this ban so that people don't have to worry about it."
The U.S. consul-general in Ottawa, Keith Powell, confirmed that while Canadians do not require a visa to travel to the United States, the law requires those with HIV to apply for a visa waiver of ineligibility.
But critics say the process is expensive, time-consuming and bogged down in red tape. Mr. Powell conceded it can take two weeks or longer, because documentation from a doctor stating the traveller's medical condition must be forwarded to an adjudication committee.
Although the U.S. Department of State said statistics are not available on how many Canadians have been turned away at the border for being HIV-positive, the number is likely in the thousands because the ban has been in place for more than two decades, said Helen Kennedy, executive director of gay-rights organization Égale Canada.
She is co-ordinating a campaign to encourage Canadian politicians to press their U.S. counterparts to ensure Mr. Bush signs Mr. Kerry's bill.
But Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier has not got involved. On Jan. 18, he wrote that while he regretted Mr. Rooney's "unpleasant" border experience, "as a sovereign state, the United States retains the prerogative to determine the screening procedures for the entry of foreign nationals into the country."
Meanwhile, public-health officials and human-rights activists on both sides of the border have long been calling on the U.S. government to lift the ban.
"As a person that treats people with HIV, this legislation has no scientific validity or foundation," said Julio Montaner, director of the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS and president-elect of the International AIDS Society.