Toward the end of July, HIV advocates received confirmation that Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officials have been using HIV status as a basis for family separation. CBP has since walked back their statement, claiming that the official misspoke. Many in the HIV community called for a commitment to ending the policy, as well as investigations around conditions at the border. These calls are important, and they have spurred rigorous inquiries by elected officials such as Representative Laskin. HIV advocates should continue to push further.
Immigrants living with HIV have faced this before. In the early 1990s, there was an influx of Haitian immigrants to the US, fleeing the aftermath of a military coup d’etat. The administration at that time, with Bill Barr as a key architect, often turned back immigrants in the boats that they came in. Haitian immigrants who were allowed to file an asylum claim were held at Guantanamo Bay, and those living with HIV were held far longer. You’re right to feel an uneasy sense of déjà-vu: Bill Barr is the current attorney general who has oversight over CBP yet allows these abuses to continue.
Today’s manifestation of these policies brings a plethora of issues. California Healthline recently reported that an inspection company which had been working for the government since the Bush Administration consistently understated conditions at the border which violate human rights. As we advocate for the proper treatment of people living with HIV by CBP, we must reckon with the fact that CBP is an entity which resists oversight and transparency. We should not assume that this will change, and we should not risk the lives and well-being of asylum seekers. As many of our colleagues stated, the camps must be closed.
At the same time, we have to recognize that the policies that allow the government to indefinitely incarcerate asylum seekers, and to recklessly separate children and their parents, is fueled by the same animus that allows Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) to criminalize entire immigrant communities. Over-policing and over-incarceration are very familiar tools of oppression. The human rights abuses that are committed in these raids and in the subsequent detention and deportation far outweigh any conceivable benefit. As HIV advocates, we should draw on this community’s history of being marginalized, stigmatized, and criminalized to join in solidarity with calls to abolish ICE.
Just as the HIV epidemic has deeper roots than access to medicine, the abuses we see at the border are tied to more than HIV status or immigration status. They are tied to ideas about US imperialism, racism, xenophobia, and stigma. We have to tackle these ideas head on, and one way is dismantling the apparatus which operationalize these harmful ideologies. When Haitian-Americans in the 90s realized how HIV stigma was impacting both recent immigrants and people living in the US, they joined in protests around the country. In short, folks made a lot of noise. Today, HIV advocates should join immigrant rights advocates in raising our voices.
*Hyacinthe is the national trainings and programs manager for the Black AIDS Institute.