22 Year Odyssey to US Citizenship for Cuban born Immigrant Living with HIV

It took Cuban immigrant Jose Picarrera, 57, 22 years to become a U.S. citizen because he had to overcome the U.S. ban on HIV+ immigrants and visitors. The ban began in 1987, under the Reagan Administration and remained in force until 2010, when this intensely homophobic and HIV phobic restriction was finally removed under President Obama.

The stigma and rejection Jose endured began in Cuba, where he was imprisoned, beaten and tortured because of his sexual orientation. He became part of the of the Mariel exodus in 1980, when 125,000 Cubans arrived in the United States in search of freedom. 

Bad advice and the fear of being expelled from the country left Jose’s legal status adrift while he tried to navigate immigration laws and a petition for political asylum that was unresolved for over a decade until Brian E. Schield, a partner at Jackson Lewis PC and long-time volunteer attorney of the LACBA AIDS Legal Services Project since 1994 became Jose’s pro bono attorney in 1996 and was able to reactivate the case. 

"Jose is a tireless fighter, he never gave up, although he was told many times that he did not qualify, he stood firm and today, although banned for many years from immigrating because he was HIV+, Jose is now a proud U.S. citizen," Brian said.

But there were numerous challenges along the way primarily because of the HIV ban. The ban prohibited all non-U.S. citizens, including legal permanent residents and even tourists, who were living with HIV from entering the country unless they could qualify for a special waiver. Not only was it difficult to qualify for the HIV waiver, but in many instances under specific immigration laws, including the Cuban Adjustment Act, there was simply no waiver available. Thus, although Brian valiantly pursued various immigration applications for Jose who was otherwise eligible, including adjustment of status and NACARA, ultimately they were all unsuccessful simply because Jose was HIV+.

Jose’s case is an example of how stigmatizing HIV has been, and how many immigrants have been harmed for decades," Brian stated.

Delays in the processing of asylum cases also affected Jose.  Finally, thanks to Brian’s efforts, the application was reactivated and over ten years later, was at last approved. Also long delayed, President Obama made good on a campaign promise and lifted the HIV ban that had been in place for 23 years, long past the time healthcare experts fully understood the modes of transmission of the virus and that there was zero risk of HIV transmission through casual contact. 

It took another six years for Jose, who is now battling cancer, to be sworn in with thousands of other new citizens at a naturalization ceremony. 

Brian has represented 25 pro bono immigrant clients living with HIV gain legal status as an ALSP volunteer.  In recognition of his extraordinary efforts, he received LACBA’s Benjamin Aranda III Pro Bono Award in 2011.