Last summer, North American Airlines employee and ESL teacher Apolo Marcos headed to the United States for a quick leisurely visit to the U.S., where he would see some friends in New York City. He had a valid 10-year tourist visa.
Upon disembarking at Atlanta International Airport (where officers are reportedly the most abusive in the country), a customs officer requested to look inside Mr. Marcos’ baggage – he believes, due to his middle-eastern looks – where they spotted the various medications he had brought in because of his HIV+ condition.
When asked about the contents of his bag, he confirmed his health condition. What followed was a twelve-hour ordeal in which he was denied his own medication, food and rest, which ultimately ended with him being sent back to his port of origin.
"I felt like dying," he told a Brazilian daily. "And I went through all this trouble because I was honest."
To add insult to injury, officials defaced his passport, effectively canceling any possibility for his entry in the U.S., where he would participate in an experimental trial of an anti-HIV drug that would have been his "last resource" for treatment, since he has become resistant to other treatments.
The U.S. Customs officials couldn’t be reached to comment on this article. Reporters from Brazil’s Folha de S. Paulo, who broke this story in Brazil, had the same results when requesting response from officials.
Mr. Marcos’ denial to enter the U.S. happened because this country is among a handful of nations (among them Saudi Arabia) who ignore United Nations recommendations and deny even temporary entry to HIV+ individuals because they might become a "health hazard" while in the country.
During the time he was detained in Atlanta, he was not allowed to get any food and was also denied use of his own medication – an attitude that, according to doctors, can cause severe risk to a patient. When he tried to lie down to rest, he was warned that the holding area "was not a hotel". There was only one toilet facility in the area, which was reportedly in poor condition.
The Brazilian government has not issued any official comment on the issue, since the incident happened within the borders of a sovereign nation which can uphold certain decisions regardless of what the U.N. might say.
I am sure that other countries have the same kind of precautions in effect," said Immigration Services spokesman Bill Stresser to the Folha. In the rare cases in which an infected individual is allowed in, the visa is issued with a special annotation. "These are contagious patients," he told the Brazilian daily.
"I have heard of several other cases similar to mine, such as this of an Uruguayan artist who used to perform regularly in Miami", said Mr. Marcos in an interview to The Brasilians. "I guess most would hide their condition out of fear or shame."
Shortly after the incident, an AIDS awareness organization in São Paulo led a rally to the doors of the U.S. Consulate in São Paulo to protest against the current policy, which many believe to be discriminatory and pointless.
Mr. Marcos now seeks legal help in the U.S. in order to have the decision revoked. He also seeks compensation to the humiliation he went through during the endless hours he was detained in Atlanta.
"If I can get a lawsuit filed in the U.S.," Marcos told us, "I hope the U.S. government declares throughout the media that HIV+ visitors are, in fact, not welcome in the country."
He feels that the treatment he has received is at least ironic, since the first reported AIDS cases came from the U.S. in the early 80s.
There might be little that he can accomplish with a lawsuit, though. According to The Foreign Relations office in Brazil, "there isn’t much that can be done to help him", as reported by Folha.
"The Brazilian Consulate in Miami Brazilian was informed", according to the report, "that since he is considered a ‘health threat’, he would need to qualify for a special permit, which is only given to special cases, such as visits to family members – which is not his case."
The case of Apolo Marcos is one of many that show the ugly face of the Department of Homeland Security. Instead of looking for real threats, they deny visas to people who pose no risk to the country under the clout of "protecting the nation."
As Rolling Stone Magazine reported in a recent issue, several musicians have had a hard time getting permits to perform here for the most absurd reasons, which has prompted them to simply forgo touring here and heading to Japan or Europe, where they will not be hassled unnecessarily – which becomes a huge loss for music fans, who will not get to see these tours.
Central Park Summerstage fans will remember that alt-rock Nação Zumbi could not appear because some band members had their entries denied.
Labels, of course, have a lot to lose, since CD and DVD sales hugely depend on live performances to promote their artists. The same goes with foreign tourists who come from nations that require a visa to enter this country. Who needs to have their entire life scrutinized four a lousy two-week stay?
Supporters of the government’s policies might point to recent events in London and Madrid as an excuse to justify these measures – also, some might say that we are also thwarting the proliferation of illegal immigration with stricter, harsher regulations.
We do need to have some common sense here. Not every HIV+ visitor will go bare-backing in the streets of major U.S. cities, and touring musicians should not be considered a threat to the nation. And no, not every Brazilian visitor will be considering to take up residence in Newark’s Ironbound Section.
The only thing that we gain through those measures is to increase the international alienation that has, year after year, grown since the Bush administration took office. Instead of gaining respect for our anti-terrorist measures (which, we must admit, have been somewhat effective), all we get is scorn and indifference. And don’t even get me started on the lost revenue taken by the tourist industry.
Ernest Barteldes is an ESL and Portuguese teacher. In addition to that, he is a freelance writer whose work has been published by The Greenwich Village Gazette, The Staten Island Advance, The Staten Island Register, The SI Muse, Brazzil magazine, The Villager, GLSSite, Entertainment Today and other publications. He lives in Staten Island, NY. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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