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The University's threat to withdraw sponsorship of the Eighth International Conference on AIDS is part of a broader effort by faculty and administrators to change U.S. immigration policy, Harvard officials said this week.
Since early this year, representatives of the University have been vigorously lobbying Congress and the Bush Administration to lift a federal law that bans people infected with the AIDS virus from entering the country without a special waiver.
Two weeks ago, Harvard, which was to host the 1992 conference, announced that it will cancel the meeting unless the law is changed. But the move was settled upon only as a "stop-gap measure" after months of pressure on Washington met with little success, according to University officials.
A group of professors and administrators headed by Alan Fein, executive director of the Harvard AIDS Institute, and John Shattuck, vice president for government and community affairs, has served as a task force to rally opposition to the law. Fein said the group has contacted members of Congress, White House advisers, and representatives of both the State Department and the Justice Department, as well as Secretary of Health and Human Services Louis W. Sullivan
In addition, the task force organized a mailcampaign that prompted thousands of scientists andpublic health experts to send postcards toCongress and the White House.
Ending the travel restrictions is "of directconcern to many individuals at Harvard," saidHarvey V. Fineberg, dean of the School of PublicHealth. "It's a matter of vital social policy, amatter of good public health, a matter of fairnessand non-discrimination."
The 1987 law, which was drafted by Sen. JesseHelms (R-N.C.) and passed as an amendment to anappropriations bill, has been the target ofmounting protests in recent weeks. Approximately100 groups, including the international arm of theAmerican Red Cross, boycotted the SixthInternational Conference on AIDS, which ended lastSunday in San Francisco.
Having met with little support from the WhiteHouse, Harvard lobbyists "have been focusing on alegislative remedy" to the Helms Amendment, saidParker Coddington, director of governmentalrelations. The University's main ally on CapitolHill has been Rep. J. Roy Howland (D-Ga.), who hasintroduced legislation that would give Sullivanthe ability to remove the AIDS virus from theImmigration and Naturalization Service's list ofexcludable diseases.
Officials in Washington expressed hope thisweek that Harvard's letter threatening to withdrawsponsorship of the conference, which was sent tolawmakers, Bush Administration officials and AIDSgroups, will help Rowland's bill.
"The letter is a symbolic warning shot acrossthe bow of Congress," said James Brown, aspokesperson for the U.S. Public Health Service.Brown said that Sullivan plans to lift the travelrestrictions if the proposed legislation passes.
Hearings on the bill began Wednesday, andRowland said he expects the House to pass it. Buthe said the bill's future in the Senate isuncertain, and that pressure from groups likeHarvard could make the difference.
"Every organization or country that indicatesit is boycotting meetings here because of the[Helms] bill makes it increasingly difficult forus not to change what we have in place right now,"Rowland said.
Fein said that on November 1, unless the lawhas been changed, the University will officiallyannounce its withdrawal of sponsorship of theconference.
Such a step, public health experts said, wouldbe a setback for AIDS research on an immediatelevel. But in the long term, they agreed, failureto take a stand on the travel restrictions wouldbe more harmful.
"All of us realize the importance ofinternational exchange," said Mary Cotton, whoheads the American Red Cross' AIDS educationprogram. "Anything that restricts our ability todo that is a tragedy."
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