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HIV-infected refugees cause dilemma

The Bush administration is trying to decide what to do about at least 230 Haitian refugees who may be eligible for political asylum but who also have tested positive for the AIDS virus, officials say.

Immigration officials have granted the refugees preliminary asylum, meaning they have convinced immigration authorities they may be persecuted if they are returned to their homeland.

Left unanswered, however, is whether the Haitians will be allowed to pursue their asylum claims in the United States or at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo, Cuba.

State Department spokesman Margaret Tutwiler confirmed without comment Thursday that no decision had been made on the disposition of the HIV-infected Haitians.

Another official said the issue has been a divisive one. "There's been a tremendous debate," the official said.

Normally, aliens found to be infected with the HIV virus are not allowed to emigrate to the United States, but officials said the law permits exceptions.

AIDS cases in Port-au-Prince have reached epidemic proportions, with estimates that 7 percent to 8 percent of the adult population have been infected by the AIDS virus. The disease, spread mostly by heterosexual contact, is believed to be the major killer of adults in urban areas.

The officials said the 230 or so HIV-positive cases were found among the first 3,440 Haitians who were tested at Guantanamo, a rate roughly equivalent to the incidence in Port-au-Prince.