Federal Policy Facilitated the Spread of HIV, Says Retired DHS Officer

Black American women bore the brunt of it

By David North on December 18, 2023

Lots of African-American women, and some of their children, were exposed to HIV because of marriages to African men carrying the disease — because DHS officers who knew this were forbidden to tell the women of that danger.

That’s the story told by Richard Lee of Charleston, S.C., a retired DHS adjudicator who reported on the situation to the Center.

Although Lee did not put it in this way, the immigration system, in effect, had ruled that privacy (for the HIV-carrying male alien) was regarded as more important than the health of: 1) the woman involved, usually a Black U.S. citizen; 2) any babies born to that couple; and 3) by extension, the public health of Americans generally.

Let’s pick up the story in Lee’s own words:

I had a West African male come into the immigration office. As I reviewed his case and started the adjudication process, I looked at his medical records ... every applicant who comes into the office must submit an I-693 medical exam for adjustment of status. On that medical exam, they must list any medical conditions they have. ... During this time [2004-2008] immigrants needed proof they were HIV negative; an HIV positive test could bar the applicant ... from coming into the country and staying in the country. Mind you, with anything in INS, there’s always a waiver; you can waive that HIV status.


Some of the standard questions that we asked were discussed with the [other] immigration officers. We frequently asked, “Hey, are you guys planning on having children?” And inevitably, the African-American woman almost always said, “Yes, we’re planning on having kids.” The West African man would always say, “No, I’m not planning on having kids because of HIV.” I separated the husband and wife during the interview. ... And I would always ask the West African man ... “Have you told your spouse that you have HIV?” All the time, the men would respond, “No, I have not told her.”

For the most part these were genuine marriages, as Lee explained to me. The American pattern of HIV being transmitted by homosexual sex was different from the pattern in Africa, where it usually happened in heterosexual encounters. He said that most of the petitions were approved, but that he and his fellow officers were not allowed to tell the wife of the husband’s condition.

Sometimes the officers would seek to skirt the privacy ruling by telling both of them that the man had some health issues that needed to be sorted out in the hopes that the HIV matter came up later in a resulting conversation between husband and wife.

Lee said that he was working in Atlanta at the time, and that he and his fellow officers would each encounter several such cases a week. In fact, he said there seemed to be a concentration of cases in Georgia. This is supported by 2020 government data showing that Georgia was, by several points, the state with the highest rate of HIV diagnoses per 100,000 population, at 22.1, compared to the next state, Louisiana, with 18.7. (The District of Columbia, which is not a state, scored 32.3 on this scale.)

HIV is a dangerous disease now, but it was considerably worse at the time Lee was handling these cases. What he was discussing with me was not marriage-related immigration fraud per se, but it was immigration-related spouse-deception (essentially tolerated by system).

Civil rights advocates, if they knew of the situation, would have said — correctly — that here is yet another instance in which Black women are disadvantaged by public policy — specifically, Black women who are citizens or green card holders.

Other Bits of Privacy Lunacy. This is not the only instance in which the immigration system puts a needless priority on privacy. The Administrative Appeals Office, which handles appeals from USCIS officers’ decisions, redacts the names of not only the alien involved, but also that of alien’s lawyer and of the AAO decision-maker and any clue as to the alien’s geographical location, as we have reported earlier.

Similarly, in various DHS statistical reporting systems, if the numbers in the category are one or two we are not told this, all we see is the letter D for “data denied”. In some systems, all numbers nine and fewer get the D treatment.

Lee's new book on this and his other experiences with the service, After the Border: 42 Eye-Opening, Shocking, Crazy, Happy & Fun Stories from a Retired U.S. Immigration Officer, is available starting today in Kindle format.