White House Waffles on HIV Asylum Policy: Contradicting INS, It Insists Ban Stands

Article excerpt

The White House, faced by mounting public opposition, is disavowing its policy favoring the granting of asylum to immigrants infected with the AIDS virus.

"We're not changing policy at all," said an official in the White House Office of National AIDS Policy, who spoke on the condition that he not be named. "We have a strict policy that's been enforced since 1993 that does not allow anyone with HIV to enter the country."

The Immigration and Naturalization Service told The Washington Times this month that it had added the human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS, to the list of considerations for asylum candidates because the White House instructed it to.

"The White House has the last say," INS spokesman Brian Jordan said. "The INS helps all parties involved reach an informed decision. . . . But if the White House desires it, naturally we assent to what they say."

The Times reported Oct. 3 that a New York immigration judge had granted asylum to a 30-year-old computer engineer from the African country of Togo solely on the basis of his HIV status.

The Times' report was picked up by radio hosts such as Rush Limbaugh, G. Gordon Liddy and Mary Matalin and generated national outrage. The INS acknowledges getting numerous telephone calls with complaints about the policy from listeners of those shows.

Questioned about its role in changing asylum standards to include those who are HIV-positive, the White House has offered three explanations:

* The Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS only recommended - not directed - the policy change.

"The White House did not make them do anything," the AIDS official said. He noted that a transmittal letter accompanying the council's recommendations said, "It is the president's hope that we are as responsive as possible to these recommendations."

* The INS refused to accept the council's recommendation. "The INS said the advisory council's recommendation to create a special social class would be counter to the statute," the AIDS policy official said. "The INS was very clear that it wouldn't - it couldn't - change the class for HIV. So the INS rejected this recommendation."

But the INS general counsel felt it necessary to alert subordinate legal offices of the council's recommendation in February. "HIV shall be considered in requests for discretionary forms of relief from deportation, and claims of asylum or withholding of deportation shall be handled in accordance with the attached discussion on that subject, prepared at the request of the White House," the general counsel's memorandum said.

* Existing policy is flexible enough to handle the change. The AIDS council, a group of 33 private-sector experts, just didn't know that when it made the recommendation.

Under a 1993 law, those infected with communicable diseases, including AIDS, were barred from entering the United States. If they managed to reach this country, they were subject to deportation.

The Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS sought to change that policy late last year. It recommended that the INS and other federal agencies grant asylum "based on the social group category of HIV-positive individuals."

The White House AIDS policy official acknowledged that the INS has, on occasion, granted waivers to allow HIV-positive people to enter the country.

"It has been used very, very rarely to allow waivers to individuals in cases where return to their country would mean they'd be in danger. They are not considered to be members of a special social group. The policy has not changed," he said.

"It most certainly does alter policy - radically," said Allen Kay, a spokesman for Rep. …