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This May Day, Join the HIV Community Movement for Expanded Sanctuary

A Joint Statement from Counter Narrative Project, HIV Prevention Justice Alliance, Positive Women's Network - USA, TransLatin@ Coalition, Treatment Action Group, the US People Living with HIV Caucus and Venas Abiertas

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no one leaves home unless 
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border 
when you see the whole city running as well…

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land…

no one chooses refugee camps 
or strip searches where your body is left aching
or prison, 
because prison is safer 
than a city of fire…
- excerpted from “Home” by Warsan Shire

Emigrating entails hardship and sacrifice: leaving loved ones, a community and valued possessions behind; sometimes learning a new language and a new culture. Throughout history, people have courageously made these difficult and sometimes heartbreaking choices for their own preservation, to seek or to provide a better future for their loved ones. Yet today, tens of millions of people, driven by the same aspirations and values this country claims to cherish, live in agonizing fear for their safety--because a minority of the United States elected to its highest office a demagogue who found his path to victory in scapegoating and marginalizing them. He has already translated his dangerous, divisive rhetoric into policies that run contrary to the U.S. Constitution and to the most basic of the values it enshrines.

HIV organizations have by and large stayed silent on immigration-related affronts to human dignity, even as the first 100 days of this administration have put the safety and lives of millions of residents on the line. Two “Muslim bans” and threats to pull federal funding for sanctuary cities blocked by federal judges; ramped-up immigrations arresting and deporting longtime U.S. residents directed by the Department of Justice (DOJ), including those who were brought to the country as children, and even when it means separating families; continued calls to build a wall along the southern border; “hotlines” to encourage the public reporting of “crimes committed by immigrants” in the style of Nazi Germany; plans to dramatically increase the number of border patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents and to lean on local police departments to enforce federal immigration laws: These threats and attacks have created a climate of fear for entire communities.

For immigrants living with and vulnerable to HIV, the stakes are even higher. For many, deportation could spell death. Some moved to the U.S. specifically in order to access life-saving treatment and health care unavailable in their home countries. Others faced sexual violence and exploitation during the very process of migration, which increases vulnerability to acquiring HIV. Still others left their homes fleeing oppressive anti-LGBT sentiment, violence and policies, and could face persecution or death if deported.

Beyond the very real dangers of deportation, detention itself by ICE is a threat to health and safety. Private prisons and detention centers, like most of the ones currently used in immigration enforcement, are notorious for denying quality health care and access to essential medications. These facilities are often a source of trauma, exacerbating the vulnerabilities of those they incarcerate and detain.

These fears drive many residents who lack papers into the shadows, putting them at increased risk of violence and exploitation. 2017 has already seen a marked decrease in the number of sexual assaults reported by Latinx people. In Texas, an immigrant woman of trans experience seeking a restraining order against an abusive partner was detained at the courthouse as she left. This kind of intimidation sends a clear message to people without papers that they should not and cannot trust the police or the courts to protect them. This leaves immigrants, particularly women and people of trans experience, living with HIV even more vulnerable to intimate partner violence (IPV).

That same distrust of systems also hampers public health efforts to provide HIV prevention, testing, care and services. Immigrants who are transgender or gender-nonconforming, Black, Muslim, Latinx, who use drugs or rely on sex work are especially vulnerable both to acquiring HIV and to facing barriers to care; the added burdens of discrimination in health care settings can amplify distrust. U.S. law enforcement also disproportionately criminalizes these same folks for their HIV status: Immigrants make up a high percentage of those apprehended by the criminal justice system because of their HIV status, with charges often related to alleged sex work. This means those most in need of prevention, testing and care will be the hardest to reach, engage and retain in care.

We have further seen how transgender women are criminalized simply for who they are, being imprisoned in immigration detention, where ICE has grievously mistreated them. This year marks the tenth anniversary of Victoria Arellano, a trans women who was murdered at the hands of ICE when they refused to provide the treatment that could have saved her life. There are many like Victoria Arellano who continue to fight the system just to obtain basic necessities like HIV medication and hormonal treatment. We must recognize that in this day and age, trans women of color are most impacted by HIV, particularly those struggling to survive, including immigrants.

It is unfathomable that the HIV community and organizations should sit by in silence as a radical right-wing, nationalist government attacks members of our own community with both rhetoric and policy. Our movement has fought for the rights of marginalized communities since the earliest days of the epidemic--a time when few were willing to speak up for the basic right to survival for gay men, people who use drugs, Black people and people struggling to make ends meet.

Without our community’s legacy of activism and willingness to speak truth to power--shouting when necessary--we almost certainly would not have many of the life-saving health and social policies and programs we have today, like the Ryan White CARE Act, the AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP) and the Housing Opportunities for People with HIV/AIDS (HOPWA) program. In fact, we likely would not even have today’s life-saving treatments had we not stood up and fought for our lives and the lives of our loved ones. The struggle to survive, resist and thrive inextricably connects the HIV movement and the immigrant rights movement. We cannot ignore the oppression of people who have made incredibly difficult decisions for their safety and survival; it impacts the HIV community as a whole.

As people living with HIV and those who love them, who have entirely too much experience with discrimination and marginalization, we have a duty to advocate for and incorporate in our own organizations, networks and communities:

1. An expanded vision of sanctuary, as described by MiJente – “dismantle[ing] the current policing apparatus that acts as a funnel to mass incarceration and the deportation machine.”

Historically, sanctuary cities and counties are those which guarantee services to immigrants regardless of citizenship and also create systems to separate law enforcement from immigration enforcement. Many police support these policies, pointing out that fear of being detained for immigration status makes people in immigrant communities afraid of reporting crime or cooperating with investigations. Sanctuary policies improve public safety.

We must pressure and support local officials of sanctuary cities to not give into threats by the administration calling to dismantle protections for immigrants. We must also make efforts to monitor, mobilize and denounce any ordinances being considered to weaken sanctuary status or protections for immigrants.

2. Sanctuary health care settings and HIV service delivery spaces.

As a community providing direct services and health care, we must task ourselves with creating sanctuary in spaces dedicated to providing holistic prevention, testing, counseling, treatment, reproductive health care and other services that are trauma-informed, so that people living with or vulnerable to HIV can access services safely.

Immigrants have rightful concerns about their data being collected and possibly shared with federal agencies, immigration enforcement or law enforcement. Thus we must re-envision which data is collected and how it is maintained at our organizations, clinics, and service delivery sites. People seeking services should know that their medical records, contact information and other personal information will remain confidential. They need to know that they will never be asked about their immigration status, and that their HIV status, positive or negative, will never be shared with anyone without their consent. They must be assured that their health and wellbeing are the singular goal of the institution.

Further, organizations and clinics should take steps to publicly declare their sanctuary policies in relation to data, refusal to collaborate with immigration enforcement, and other steps they are taking to protect immigrant clients in their outward-facing communications and public outreach materials, which must include linguistically appropriate materials. If for some reason we cannot guarantee safety, we must be transparent with our constituents that the space is no longer safe.

Promising practices currently being utilized include clinics taking steps to declare their spaces non-public, to prohibit access by immigration authorities; development of protocols to deal with potential ICE raids; and Know Your Rights trainings conducted by HIV community-based organizations for immigrant clients in relevant languages.

3. Immigrant rights and justice, including for transgender and gender-nonconforming (TGNC) people

For sanctuary to be more than a buzzword, the HIV community must take leadership on this issue. Although we are a marginalized group, our community has enjoyed the privilege of relative access to decision-makers, funding, and other forms of institutionalized resources. Immigrant folks impacted by HIV do not enjoy these privileges. Much of our advocacy in this Administration has centered contacting members of Congress, who are rarely responsive to those not perceived to have voting power. Further, HIV advocacy materials are infrequently designed in collaboration with immigrant communities or available in multiple languages. Efforts to reach out to the immigrant community should proactively include Latinx, Black, and Asian immigrant community groups. This collaboration should center immigrant communities, without endangering their safety or exploiting their voices as tokens, and should include TGNC immigrants.

This May Day and beyond, HIV organizations must commit to work with immigrant rights groups and other social justice movements, including feminist, LGBTQ, prison abolitionist and anti-racist movements, to express a unified vision of human rights for all people in the U.S., regardless of their immigration status, HIV status, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, religion or ethnicity. We must clearly declare that an attack on one of us is an attack on all. We must show up when we are called and whenever we can help. We must actively engage our constituencies in the expanded sanctuary movement, educating our communities and speaking truth to power.

And we must be prepared to aggressively fight any policies that contradict those goals. We must refuse to cooperate with any such policies if they are enacted.

As people living with and affected by HIV, we are used to fighting for our lives, along with the crucial support of our allies. Now is the time for us to stand united with others who are also fighting for their lives, understanding that our struggles are not distinct from one another, and that our fates are inextricably intertwined. History will judge us severely if we pretend otherwise through our words, actions--or silence.

Please sign on here to commit, as an organization or as an individual, to promote and provide the above whenever possible.

Special thanks to Maxx Boykin, Marco Castro-Bojorquez, Grissel Granados, Naina Khanna, Suraj Madoori, Bamby Salcedo, Jennie Smith-Camejo, Andrew Spieldenner and Charles Stephens for this statement.