November 29, 1990
Well at least one Bush did something right.
When Congress overhauled the nation’s immigration laws in 1950, it was still in the grip of the McCarthy Red and Lavender Scares. Consequently, Congress banned Communists and “persons afflicted with psychopathic personality” from entering the U.S. That latter clause was added by a Senate Judiciary subcommittee with the express purpose of excluding “homosexuals and other sex perverts.” The legislation that was ultimately signed into law didn’t mention homosexuals, but the U.S. Public Health Service consistently interpreted the language to be “sufficiently broad to provide for the exclusion of homosexuals and sex perverts.” When Congress addressed immigration reform again in 1965, it added “sexual deviation” to the list of characteristics that would preclude immigration. But even then, the law didn’t single out homosexuality for exclusion, but it nevertheless remained official immigration policy even after homosexuality was removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s list of mental disorders in 1973.
The nation’s doctors may have changed their understanding of gay people, but immigration authorities did not. That change wouldn’t come about until Congress again set out to reform the nation’s immigration laws again in 1990. This time, Congress decided to lift the political litmus test which automatically barred Communists and people with other potentially controversial political views from entering the U.S., and it also specifically struck down the exclusion of entry based on sexual orientation. When President George H.W. Bush signed the bill into law, gay people, for the first time, could enter the U.S without fear of automatic exclusion if their sexuality were discovered.
The new law was supposed to go further, with a clause which was intended to eliminate the automatic exclusion of people with AIDS from immigrating. But the law contained another clause which left it up the Health and Human Services Department to determine the list of communicable diseases which would prevent travel and immigration to the U.S. That list, as of 1990, still included HIV/AIDS, thanks to an amendment added to a 1987 appropriations bill by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC) which required that HIV/AIDS be included on the list of excludable diseases. When public health officials tried to remove AIDS from the list, it touched off a massive political firestorm of opposition from conservatives. HHS backed down, and the HIV travel and immigration ban would remain in place as an interim policy. When HHS moved to remove AIDS from the list in 1993, Congress retaliated by approving a measure that made the HIV/AIDS immigration and travel ban law. That ban was finally lifted in 2010.