Senate Backs Ban on Immigrants With AIDS Virus
In a politically embarrassing rebuff to President Clinton, the Senate Thursday approved a bill that includes a provision maintaining the controversial ban on AIDS-infected immigrants, thus presenting a major obstacle to Clinton’s oft-stated intention to end it.
The prohibition, which has been in effect since 1987, has been the focus of an intense international debate and has been almost universally condemned by the global public health community as medically unjustified and discriminatory. The rule resulted in a decision by Harvard University to move last summer’s prestigious international AIDS conference out of Boston, where it was originally scheduled, to the Netherlands, where no such prohibition exists.
The amendment, attached by Republicans to the National Institutes of Health reauthorization bill, was approved, 76 to 23, with the support of 34 Democrats. Both California senators, Democrats Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, opposed it. A similar amendment is expected to be considered in the House, where the outcome is far less certain.
The full reauthorization bill was approved by the Senate, 93 to 4. The House must also vote on the reauthorization bill and it was unclear Thursday whether President Clinton would sign the measure into law if the AIDS amendment is in the final version.
The outcome marked the second time in the early weeks of the Clinton presidency that a powerful coalition of lawmakers has challenged him on his campaign promises to the nation’s homosexual community. In the first, congressional opponents of both parties blunted his efforts to immediately lift a ban on gays in the military, forcing a compromise that requires six months of consultation and study.
Clinton had promised during the campaign and after his election that he would remove the immigration ban on foreigners infected with the human immunodeficiency virus. But the White House appeared to back off after the Senate action.
“If you look at the vote margin, he doesn’t have that many options,” White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers said. “He’s going to review it. I think the Senate made a pretty strong statement about it.”
White House Communications Director George Stephanopoulos echoed the sentiment, saying: “The Senate clearly has spoken. And the President will have to take (its) views into account as he reviews this decision.”
White House sources noted that Clinton did not take a position during the Senate debate on the issue, nor did he try to sway any lawmakers to vote against the amendment.
“This wasn’t a place to join the battle,” the source said.
Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.), chief sponsor of the HIV amendment, said that the vote on the measure should send the new Administration a strong signal that issues such as allowing HIV-infected foreigners into the United States or gays into the military are unpalatable to the American public.
“Frankly, I think President Clinton made a lot of promises to special interest groups that are not in sync with the American people, and this is one of them,” he said.
If the Senate measure becomes law, it would have a major impact on the future of the more than 200 HIV-infected Haitians now quarantined at the U.S. naval station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who is now on a hunger strike in sympathy with the quarantined Haitians, called the Senate action “a setback to American credibility,” adding: “Let the leaders of the Senate know that the merciful should obtain mercy. And to put up a kind of Berlin Wall just because they are sick is beneath the promise of America.”
A clearly irritated Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), implying racism on the part of supporters of the ban, said: “It’s politics as usual (against) people whose skin may be a different color.”
But Nickles, in an unusually testy response, insisted: “I resent the undertone that this is a racist amendment--it is not.”
Nickles said that his purpose was to protect Americans from the deadly disease and avoid having taxpayers foot the medical bills for immigrants ill with AIDS, a disease that can be expensive to treat.
“This is a serious health issue,” he said. “Lifting the ban would have contributed to the spread of a deadly disease which has already infected a million Americans. It would also cost hundreds of millions of dollars at a time when we are already struggling to contain health care costs.”
Opponents of the ban counter that the law already requires immigrants seeking permanent resident status to prove that they are economically self-sufficient and will not become a “public charge.” Those who cannot demonstrate such financial independence can be barred entry.
“This is why we do not automatically bar people with end-stage renal (kidney) disease or cancer,” said one immigration official who requested anonymity.
Ironically, in 1990, Congress--with the unmistakable intent of removing the ban on HIV-infected immigrants--passed legislation giving the secretary of health and human services authority to determine what diseases should keep immigrants out of this country. Eight diseases are now on the list, including infectious tuberculosis, leprosy and five other sexually transmitted diseases in addition to AIDS.
Louis W. Sullivan, the last Administration’s health and human services secretary, attempted to revise the list leaving infectious tuberculosis as the only disease that would bar entry. TB is highly communicable and spread through the air, unlike the other conditions, which are not casually transmitted.
But Sullivan was overruled by the George Bush White House, which had been under pressure from congressional conservatives to leave the ban in place.
Critics of Thursday’s Senate action attacked lawmakers for fearing public reaction when confronted with a clear up-or-down vote on AIDS.
“In 1990, Congress was not asked to vote up or down specifically on the status of people with AIDS,” said Jeff Levi, director of governmental affairs for the AIDS Action Council. “This demonstrates there is still a good deal of fear and prejudice.”
Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.), ranking Republican on the House Judiciary subcommittee on immigration, said that he would introduce a similar amendment in the House. It is uncertain, however, to which legislation the amendment could be attached. Unlike in the Senate, amendments in the House are required to be germane to the subject of the legislation.
If the House approves the NIH reauthorization bill, the fate of the immigration amendment would then rest with a House-Senate conference committee charged with working out the differences between the two versions.
The full NIH bill provides $17.8 billion over three years for biomedical research spending. It also earmarks spending for research into breast, ovarian and other reproductive cancers, and prostate cancer. It also establishes safeguards to prevent abuses in the use of fetal tissue in medical research and extends these safeguards to private sector research. Clinton last month removed the ban on federal funding of fetal tissue research.
Times staff writer William J. Eaton contributed to this story.