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New rule allows refugees to bring same-sex partners to U.S.

By Michael K. Lavers

November 03, 2015

The State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration in an Oct. 1 letter to Congress notes it will “allow a qualifying individual” to request their same-sex partner receive refugee or asylee status under a provision of the U.S. Refugee Assistance Program known as P-3 that specifically deals with family reunification.

The new provision requires the petitioner to file an affidavit proving he or she has been in a relationship with their same-sex partner for at least a year outside the U.S. before submitting their application. The petitioner also needs to consider “that person to be his/her spouse or life partner, and that relationship is ongoing.”

The petitioner must also prove that “legal marriage” to their partner “was not an obtainable option due to social and/or legal prohibitions.”

Only refugees or asylees in the U.S. who are originally from Afghanistan, Bhutan, Burma, Burundi, Central African Republic, Colombia, Cuba, North Korea, Democratic Republic of Congo, El Salvador, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Iran, Iraq, Mali, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Syria and Uzbekistan can access the P-3 program.

The program allows a family member in the U.S. to apply “for a same-sex spouse if a legal marriage was conducted and documented.” The State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration in its letter to Congress that same-sex marriage “is not legal in the vast majority of refugee-producing and refugee-hosting countries.”

“The legal definition of ‘spouse’ remains unchanged,” State Department spokesperson Elizabeth Trudeau told the Washington Blade on Tuesday. “However, due to the administration’s recognition that marriage is not a legally viable option in many refugees’ countries of origin, we have granted access to the P-3 refugee family reunification process to the same-sex partners of LGBT individuals who do not have legal access to the institution of marriage in their home countries, provided that the refugee’s partner is otherwise admissible.”

Homosexuality criminalized in many P-3 countries

The State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration each year determines the specific refugees and asylum seekers who will be able to take advantage of the P-3 program. This determination is made based on whether a particular nationality “is of special humanitarian concern to the United States for the purpose of family-reunification refugee processing.”

Laws criminalizing homosexuality remain in place in Afghanistan, Bhutan, Burma, Burundi, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sri Lanka and Uzbekistan.

Homosexuality is punishable by death in Iran, Sudan and portions of Somalia. Reports indicate the Islamic State has executed at least 30 men accused of sodomy in Iraq and Syria.

Anti-LGBT discrimination and violence remain pervasive throughout El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Independent Cuban LGBT rights advocates with whom the Washington Blade has spoken over the last year say officials on the Communist island routinely harass them.

Maykel González Vivero, an independent Cuban LGBT advocate from the city of Sagua la Grande, told the Blade on Tuesday in an email that he welcomes the new P-3 program rule.

“It implies that the United States is willing to support LGBTI families that, for reasons that are no doubt political, are not recognized by the Cuban state,” he said.

Expanded provision ‘absolutely welcome’

The new rule under the P-3 program took effect against the backdrop of the continued influx of refugees and migrants into Europe from Syria, Iraq and other countries.

Secretary of State John Kerry in September announced the U.S. will accept 85,000 refugees next year and another 100,000 in 2017.

President Obama in the same month said the U.S. will allow at least 10,000 Syrian refugees to resettle in the country in 2016. The San Francisco-based Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration has called upon the White House to set aside 500 of these “slots” for those who are fleeing the war-torn country because of anti-LGBT persecution.

ORAM Executive Director Neil Grungras told the Blade on Tuesday during a telephone interview from Israel that the new rule under the P-3 program is “absolutely welcome.”

“It’s really forward thinking,” he said, noting LGBT refugees and asylum seekers are often unable to bring their partners with them to the U.S. “It’s about time.”

Immigration Equality Legal Director Aaron Morris shared a similar sentiment.

“The State Department’s decision to keep permanent partner P-3 refugees together is a cause for celebration because almost no LGBT refugees have access to marriage equality,” he told the Blade on Tuesday.

Advocates: Expand rule to more refugees, asylees

Matthew Corso, chair of Center Global, a program of the D.C. Center for the LGBT Community, noted to the Blade that less than 10 percent of all of the LGBT asylum seekers and refugees who have sought assistance from his group are from P-3 countries.

He said he would like to see the U.S. allow more refugees and asylees to take advantage of the new policy.

“While we are pleased to see the State Department moving the needle on reuniting same sex spouses for refugees and asylees from P-3 countries, it will be interesting to see whether or not USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service) responds in kind to ensure many more LGBTI refugees and asylees from countries such as Uganda, Russia, Jamaica and others not on the P-3 list can be reunited with their loved ones who are still living abroad,” said Corso.

Morris expressed a similar concern.

“Because this rule will help a couple only if both partners have been designated as refugees, we are eager work with federal agencies to extend similar benefits to families where only one partner has been granted refugee status,” he told the Blade. “This is the reality for most LGBT asylees in the U.S., and no one should have to choose between their family and their own safety.”

Andrea Ayala, executive director of Espacio de Mujeres Lesbianas por la Diversidad, an LGBT advocacy group in El Salvador known by the Spanish acronym ESMULES, told the Blade on Tuesday in an email that it would prove “difficult” for couples to prove their relationship to U.S. authorities. González expressed a similar concern, but he still described the new policy as a “step forward.”

“It seems fair to me,” he told the Blade.