Helm's ban originated in 1987 with an amendment that directed the Public Health Service to add HIV to its list of "dangerous contagious diseases." An HIV specific ban on immigration and travel was codified into law by Congress in 1993. The public health community tried unsuccessfully to remove the ban when Congress reformed U.S. immigration law in the early 1990s. The gay community has loathed Helms and his legislative legacy for many years, and is ecstatic that so soon after his death this ban is being removed.
On Wednesday the Senate voted to repeal the HIV travel ban with a 80-16 vote. The provision to repeal the travel ban was included in the reauthorization of the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. PEPFAR is the U.S. international AIDS effort, which was renewed for another five years along with a tripling of its budget to $50 billion. Shrub has been pushing for it, and it looks like it will be one of the few things he has done for which he may be appreciated. The final bill passed the Senate 80-16. It appears that Obama & McCain did not vote on this provision, though I am skeptical of this and would be interested if you find out to the contrary.
Senators John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) and Gordon Smith (R-Oregon) led the effort to drop the ban. Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama) was the most vocal opponent to the change. The Congressional Budget Office said that lifting the ban may cost the US around $83 million in additional medical costs over the next decade. Sessions was temporarly placated by an increases in the visa application and immigration fees intended to help defray medical costs.
HIV is the only disease that was specifically named in immigration law, which currently excludes foreigners with any "communicable disease of public health significance" from entering the U.S. The secretary of Health and Human Services gets to decide if there is a significant risk to public health for all other diseases. Now that the ban is removed, HIV will be treated like every other infectious disease.
The ban caused a lot of pain and suffering. One of the more egregious stories is from the early 1990s, when 270 Haitian refugees were detained in Guantanamo Bay because of their HIV status. Some were held as long as 3 years. In 1993, a judge ruled the camps violated three different immigration treaties, and the refugees were resettled in New York and Boston.
Helms attacked the HIV/AIDS population in other ways, besides the travel and immigration ban. He got another amendment passed in 1989 after seeing a pamphlet directed at teaching safe sex to gay men. The amendment (attached to a large spending bill) banned federal funding for any AIDS education or prevention materials that would "promote or encourage, directly or indirectly, homosexual sexual activities". The CDC responded by setting up board sensors who eliminated all images of genitalia, the anus, and any kind of sex in all of their AIDS prevention materials. The resulting vagueness of the materials made them all but useless. Between 1988 and 1992 AIDS spread dramatically in the US and effective and direct education about the transmission of the disease might have reduced the epidemic by hundreds of thousands of cases. But it is too late now.
Eliminating the travel and immigration ban is a good first step toward changing immigration policy that prevents HIV+ foreign nationals from obtaining legal permanent residency in the US. This legislation is in turn linked to the lack of recognition of same-sex pairings from outside the country.
Here's a really sweet blog post from Andrew Sullivan, who is both HIV positive and a British citizen. Very sweet indeed.