Status of HIV-Positive Haitians Debated : Immigration: The Administration weighs granting them asylum. U.S. law prohibits admission but certain exceptions are allowed.


The Bush Administration is debating whether to admit to the United States 230 Haitian refugees who qualify for political asylum but are infected with the AIDS virus.

The refugees, along with others who have escaped their strife-torn island nation, are being housed at a U.S.-run camp at Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba.

Vern Jervis, an INS spokesman in Washington, confirmed that discussions have taken place between Justice and State Department officials over the status of the refugees.

Sources familiar with those discussions said three options have emerged: sending the HIV-positive Haitians home; denying their entry to the United States but processing their asylum claims at Guantanamo Bay, or granting them a waiver to enter this country.

Immigration laws now permit the government to deny entry to immigrants who are infected with the human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS. Exceptions may be made, however, for immigrants seeking political asylum.

Advocates for the Haitian refugees say their clients have been unfairly singled out for testing as a way of preventing them from entering the country.

"Typically, asylum seekers have never been subjected to HIV testing," said Cheryl Little, an attorney with the Haitian Refugee Center in Miami.

Officials estimate that up to 8% of the adult Haitian population is infected with the AIDS virus, which is largely transmitted in Haiti through heterosexual activity.

Navy officials at Guantanamo said those persons found to be HIV-positive were among the first 3,440 Haitians tested at Guantanamo.

Of the nearly 15,000 Haitian boat people who have been picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard since a military coup in Haiti last September, about 4,100 have tentatively been granted political asylum by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Those refugees qualified by demonstrating that their welfare was endangered by the political climate in their country.

Bush Administration officials have sought to repatriate most of the refugees, contending they are economic, rather than political refugees.

Meanwhile, Thursday, the House Judiciary Committee voted, 21 to 12, to impose a six-month moratorium on the Administration's forced repatriation of the Haitian boat people. The bill now faces a vote by the full House, which is unlikely to debate the legislation before next month.

A companion bill is being prepared for the Senate by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), chairman of the immigration subcommittee. But sources on Capitol Hill said the legislation was unlikely to reach the White House, where it faces a certain veto.

Times staff writer Ron Ostrow also contributed to this story.

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