A 29-year-old Tennessee man has found himself in jail and detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) due to an accusation of HIV-exposure. According to local news ABC affiliate, WKRN, Bryan Rivas-Vargas was arrested and charged in late September with exposing a woman to HIV, still a felony in Tennessee. And now activists are saying his arrest and detainment is discriminatory — both due to growing anti-immigrant sentiment and outdated HIV criminalization laws.
According to the WKRN report, the woman charging Rivas-Vargas became pregnant with his child in 2015 and claims that she was unaware of his HIV status at the time. While still pregnant, she says she discovered a pill bottle and prescription for Atripla, an HIV medication, among his belongings. When she confronted Rivas-Vargas, he then disclosed to her that he was HIV-positive. It is unclear why the woman decided to go to police four years later, nor is it known if the woman acquired HIV (the charge is for “exposure” only).
"I do not believe it was a coincidence that it was after his arrest and charge with a felony that immigration authorities were able to put an ICE hold on this case," R.J. Robles, a prominent local Latinx activist, told TheBody's Mathew Rodriguez. Robles pointed out that Rivas-Vargas's case coincides with a recent spike in ICE activity in the state, including a recent raid of a Morristown meatpacking plant that took 97 people away from their jobs. Robles insists that Rivas-Vargas's HIV charge and ICE detainment are connected.
According to the Davidson County Sheriff's Office official record (available online), Rivas-Vargas is not eligible for release and has been detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Neither the police record, TheBody, or the WKRN report identifies Rivas-Vargas's immigration status.
According to Rodriguez, Tennessee still enforces outdated laws and punishments around HIV, which are far behind current science. The state’s statute criminalizing HIV exposure requires that there be a "significant risk" of transmission for the defendant to be convicted. However, "the state has prosecuted cases where the risk of transmission was zero — such as in 2016, when a 48-year-old woman was charged with criminal exposure to HIV for coughing and spitting at store employees. In Tennessee, a person convicted of HIV exposure is required to register as a sex offender."
It is also not known whether or not Rivas-Vargas was undetectable at the time of the alleged exposure. Since he was on HIV medication, there is the possibility that his viral load may have been undetectable—which makes it impossible to transmit the virus to a sexual partner, even without the use of condoms. Also known as U=U, undetectable equals untransmittable, a now globally accepted scientific consensus.
This is not the first time ICE has drawn criticism for its discriminatory and inhumane treatment of people living with HIV. After news broke that two transgender women living with HIV, Roxsana Hernández and Johana Medina, died while in ICE custody after being denied HIV medication, a coalition of human rights groups filed a formal complaint against ICE. In September, the group,—which includes Southern Poverty Law Center, Transgender Law Center, and the Center for American Progress—stated it filed the complaint due to ICE’s treatment of LGBTQ detainees and detainees living with HIV, noting its "egregiously inadequate medical and mental health care."