It's been nearly a decade since the United States began allowing people with HIV from abroad to enter the country as immigrants.
But the U.S. has never provided data on the number of HIV-positive refugees or asylum seekers admitted since the immigration law changed in 2010, despite efforts from groups including the Center for American Progress and Immigration Equality.
Aaron Morris, executive director of Immigration Equality, noted that persecution against people with HIV, as well as those who are LGBT, is common in parts of Central America, Africa and Eastern Europe. This is why the public deserves to know whether these asylum-seekers are having success.
“It's hard to know exactly what is happening in different regions of the United States and different parts of the border,” he explained. “And it's in everyone's best interest to be transparent to provide that information so we can make necessary reform.”
Some immigration advocates hope this issue gets more attention following a case highlighted by WNYC involving activist Ana Batiz and one of her daughters, Susan. The two women have HIV and claim they were fleeing persecution in Honduras. They were separated at the border in July of 2018 because Susan was 18, the age at which Customs and Border Protection considers a migrant to be an adult. As a result, they were given separate credible fear interviews to determine whether they could enter and apply for asylum. Batiz passed but Susan did not, and was ultimately deported last November.
A Texas-based attorney who tried to help Susan, Elizabeth Caballaro, has wondered if the teen was discriminated against for having HIV because of the speed with which she was deported. “They didn’t want her here,” she said. “They’re just as ignorant as the people who discriminate against her over there, in her home country.”
U.S Citizenship and Immigration Services has said it can’t comment on individual cases. But a spokesperson noted the 2010 law that allowed people with HIV to enter the country. She also said the agency reviews each case on its own merit, with decisions based on relevant laws and evidence.
But Morris said breaking down the data on asylum seekers would help determine whether asylum officers and immigration judges are, in fact, being fair, when deciding who can enter the U.S. to pursue a claim.
“I think we've had a lot of success in expanding to adjudicators why HIV is related to an asylum claim,” he said, referring both to the asylum officers and judges. “It's hard to know what prejudice or stigma those adjudicators have without harder numbers to track the trends of their adjudications.”
He also noted allegations that people with HIV are treated poorly in detention centers. A transgender woman with HIV died last year in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
People can be granted asylum if they’re persecuted for their race, religion, political opinion, nationality or particular social group. Such a group could include people with HIV and those who are LGBTQ, because they often face severe discrimination. Ana Batiz said people threatened her life once she became a well-known HIV positive activist and her daughter, Susan, said she was beaten by classmates at school.
The Executive Office for Immigration Review, which runs the immigration courts, “does not track in its case database any grounds for asylum claims,” said spokesman John Martin.
Morris said he hopes the new Democratic congress will help groups like his obtain any data the government has for people with HIV, and LGBT asylum seekers.
“There are certainly members of Congress who are in leadership positions who have made the ask very recently for this information,” he said. “If that doesn't work and subpoena power doesn't work, because the government may just come back and say we don't have this information, it might require legislation later on.”