President Clinton plans to abolish a controversial immigration rule that prohibits HIV-infected persons from entering the country, the White House said Thursday, but Administration officials added that quick action is unlikely.
George Stephanopoulos, the President's communications director, said that he could not give a date for eliminating the rule, which has caused an international furor, because the government is in the midst of a general review of its Haiti policy.
Clinton advisers suggested that the President, fresh from a bruising confrontation over whether gays should be allowed to serve in the military, is not eager to leap back into what the public would perceive as another gay-related political fight. Because of that, the Administration likely will seize on the complications arising from policy toward Haiti to delay resolution of the issue until later this year.
About 270 Haitians, most of whom are infected with the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS, are being detained at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, although they have been approved for political asylum in the United States.
Stephanopoulos told reporters that the President's national security advisers are "reviewing the entire policy of Haiti" in light of the George Bush Administration's practice of forcibly returning Haitians who reach the shores of South Florida from their troubled homeland. Clinton has continued that policy and even tightened it.
During last year's election campaign, Clinton criticized Bush's Haiti policy as "cruel" and said that he would reverse it. But closer to his inauguration, faced with the possibility of massive migration and possible loss of life as Haitians prepared to set sail in rickety boats, Clinton said that he would not immediately change the policy.
Clinton also had pledged to lift the HIV rule, which congressional conservatives have championed over the objections of most health care professionals. The ban has been attacked as discriminatory and medically unnecessary by civil rights groups, AIDS advocacy groups and members of the world health community.
Stephanopoulos acknowledged Clinton's promise, saying: "He is committed and intends to move forward on removing the ban."
The prohibition dates back to 1987 during the Ronald Reagan Administration, when Congress approved an amendment sponsored by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) adding AIDS or HIV infection to the registry of diseases barring people from traveling here.
Health professionals repeatedly have argued that AIDS--unlike a highly infectious disease such as tuberculosis--should not disqualify a foreign immigrant because it cannot be contracted through the air or through casual contact.
But Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove) summed up the view of many conservatives in saying that the policy "will save lives--that's the bottom line."
"Given any 100 people coming in here with the HIV virus who promise they won't be promiscuous, there will be two or three liars," Dornan said, adding that some Americans will be infected as a result.
During the Bush Administration, Congress reversed itself and enacted a law giving the health and human services secretary authority to determine what diseases posed a public health danger and should be kept on the list.
Then-HHS Secretary Louis W. Sullivan tried to remove AIDS from the list, proposing that tuberculosis be the only condition barring immigrants and travelers from entering the country. He said TB was the only listed disease that is transmitted through the air.
But under pressure from congressional conservatives, Bush Administration officials allowed the AIDS prohibition to remain. The world health community was so upset that it refused to let Harvard University host the 1992 International AIDS Conference. The meeting was moved to Europe.
Since the election, Dr. James O. Mason, the assistant secretary for health who supported Sullivan, quietly signed off on removing the ban and sent a directive for final approval to the White House budget office, government sources said.
Justice Department sources said that the Immigration and Naturalization Service was not aware of such action. But HHS might have bypassed former Atty. Gen. William P. Barr because he was among the most outspoken advocates of the AIDS ban, one official said.
That directive has been returned to HHS as part of a general freeze on all last-minute Bush Administration actions, an official said.