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Separation Anxiety: How the Trump Administration is Using Immigrants' HIV Status to Justify Family Separations

During a hearing before the House Oversight Committee last week on the Trump administration’s family separation policy, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Chief of Law Enforcement Brian Hastings was asked by Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD-8) if an immigrant mother’s or father’s HIV status was justification for separating them from their children. The question, which was levied by Rep. Raskin in response to the recent discovery that CBP had separated a Honduran immigrant father living with HIV from his 3 children because of his serostatus, is not open to interpretation. There is only one correct answer that CBP Chief Hastings could have given when he was posed this question and, unfortunately, that was not he answer that he gave.

“It is,” CBP Chief Hastings falsely asserted when asked if it was within the rights of U.S. immigration officials to separate a parent living with HIV from their children because of their HIV status. “It’s a communicable disease under the guidance.”

When CBP Chief Hastings told the Oversight Committee this, it is unclear whether his response was rooted in genuine ignorance of the existing law or a desire to retroactively justify the unlawful actions of U.S. immigration officials. Regardless, his statement was demonstrably wrong, and the guidance he cited does not say what he said it does.

According to a final rule passed by the Obama administration in 2010 lifting the ban on people living with HIV traveling to the U.S., HIV is not viewed by the federal government as a Communicable Disease of Public Health Significance. As such, HIV is no longer classified by the United States as a communicable disease that poses a significant public health risk through casual contact and cannot be used as a rationale to bar entry to the country or to separate a parent from their children. The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention supported this rule in the aftermath of Hastings’ testimony, with CDC spokesperson Bertram Kelly stating that, “removing HIV infection from the list of illnesses that prevent entry to the U.S. reflects the most recent scientific research regarding HIV risk.”

Shortly after his testimony, CBP Chief Hastings issued a clarification, acknowledging that HIV is not a communicable disease that would prohibit the entry of an immigrant to the U.S. and that, “CBP would not separate families due to the communicable nature of HIV.” However, in the same breath, Hastings also said that HIV does “present additional considerations that may affect how migrants might move forward in processing,” and asserted that child separations from parents living with HIV are handled on a “case-by-case basis.”

In providing this clarification of his agency’s policy concerning their family separation policy for immigrant parents living with HIV, CBP Chief Hasting has given a distinction without any difference. In practice, it doesn’t really matter whether the federal government separates families because a parent’s HIV status presents “additional considerations” for processing or because they’re incorrectly viewed as a communicable disease risk, because they’re just two ways of saying the same thing. By the same token, there is nothing to stop the Trump administration from handling child separations from parents living with HIV on a “case-by-case basis” and simply opting to separate the families in every case.

At AIDS United, we recognize and affirm the basic human rights of all immigrants who enter the United States, and we have a particularly vested interest in ensuring the health and wellbeing of any immigrants living with HIV. To forcibly separate an immigrant father or mother from their children is inhumane in its own right, but to do so while using that immigrant’s HIV status as a shield to falsely justify such a separation is not only inhumane, but stigmatizing to all people living with HIV as well.

We have engaged with the Trump administration since the release of their Ending the HIV Epidemic: A Plan for America with the understanding that they truly wanted to address the HIV epidemic in America.  Unfortunately, a plan that does not prioritize best practices and actively fight back against stigma does little to support that understanding. We call on the Administration to immediately cease the CBP’s targeting of immigrants living with HIV and end the policy of family separation.

You can join us in taking action by telling your Senator that HIV must not be used as a shield for discriminatory immigration policy.

Posted By: AIDS United, Policy Department - Friday, August 02, 2019

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