Speaking at the U.S. embassy in London, Secretary of State John Kerry announced on Friday that the State Department will begin processing visa applications for married gay couples in the same way the administration does for opposite-sex couples.
“If you are the spouse of a U.S. citizen, your visa application will be treated equally,” Kerry said. “If you are the spouse of a non-citizen, your visa application will be treated equally. And if you are in a country that doesn’t recognize your same-sex marriage, then your visa application will still be treated equally at every single one of our 222 visa processing centers around the world.”
According to a frequently-asked-questions page on the State Department website, the change means the same-sex spouse of a visa applicant who’s coming to the United States for any purpose – such as work, study, international exchange or as a legal immigrant – will be eligible for a derivative visa. Similarly, stepchildren acquired through same-sex marriages can qualify as beneficiaries or for derivative status.
Kerry made the announcement at the U.S. embassy in London en route back to Washington following his trip to Islamabad, Pakistan, for consultations with the newly elected government. He noted same-sex marriage will begin in England and Wales starting in 2014 thanks to recently passed legislation, which would give married same-sex couples there an additional opportunity to apply for visas in the United States.
“Now, as long as a marriage has been performed in a jurisdiction that recognizes it so that it is legal, then that marriage is valid under U.S. immigration laws, and every married couple will be treated exactly the same, and that is what we believe is appropriate,” Kerry said.
According to Freedom to Marry, 16 countries have legalized same-sex marriage. They include the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Canada, South Africa, Norway, Sweden, Portugal, Iceland, Argentina, Denmark, France, and Brazil. New Zealand, Uruguay and Britain have also legalized marriage equality, but the laws there have yet to take effect.
The change brings the State Department into alignment with the Supreme Court decision striking down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act as unconstitutional. It also comes on the heels of a policy change at the Department of Homeland Security enabling married bi-national same-sex couples to apply for green cards via the I-130 marriage-based green card application process.
“Today, the State Department, which has always been at the forefront of equality in the federal government, I’m proud to say, is tearing down an unjust and an unfair barrier that for too long stood in the way of same-sex families being able to travel as a family to the United States,” Kerry said.
The FAQ on the State Department’s website says a gay couple doesn’t have to live or intend to live in a state that recognizes same-sex marriage for that couple to apply for an immigrant or a non-immigrant visa.
Further, the couple doesn’t even need to be married or live in country that offers same-sex marriage as long as they intend to wed. In this case, the FAQ says the couple may file a Form I-129F and apply for a fiancé (K) visa.
“As long as all other immigration requirements are met, a same-sex engagement may allow your fiancé to enter the United States for the purpose of marriage,” the FAQ states.
In a blog posting on Immigration Equality’s website, Victoria Neilson, the organization’s legal director, said the new policy marks “another day to celebrate,” but added the organization wants further change from the administration.
“We have not yet solved every issue for all couples — we are hearing that Customs & Border Protection agents are still awaiting guidance and may not allow same-sex spouses to enter the U.S. in derivative status,” Neilson said. “Likewise, we continue to be concerned about how DOS will handle safety issues for marriage-based benefits filed for noncitizens in countries that criminalize same-sex relations. Immigration Equality will continue to push every agency until all couples are able to access the benefits that they are entitled to under the law.”