August 2, 2018 at 6:00 am EST | by Michael K. Lavers
Advocates express concern over new State Dept. diplomatic visa policy

A new State Department policy that will require partners of foreign mission personnel and international organization employees to be married in order to qualify for diplomatic visas has sparked concern among LGBTI rights advocates.

A new State Department policy that requires partners of foreign mission personnel and employees of international organizations to be married in order to qualify for a diplomatic visa has sparked concern among LGBTI rights advocates.

The Washington Blade last week obtained a letter from the State Department that states, “consistent with internal Department of State policy changes, partners accompanying officers and employees of international organizations or seeking to join the same must be married in order to be eligible for a derivative G-4 nonimmigrant visa or to seek a change into such status beginning October 1, 2018.” The letter also says the State Department as of Oct. 1 “will only accept the accreditation of spouses of newly arrived officers and employees of international organizations, both same-sex and opposite-sex, as members of the family of the respective international organization.”

The letter, which was distributed on July 20, says, “all currently accredited same-sex domestic partners of officers and employees of international organizations serving in the United States who wish to maintain their derivative G-4 nonimmigrant visa status and acceptance of accreditation” should ask their organization “to submit appropriate documentation” to the State Department’s Office of Foreign Missions no later than Dec. 31 that indicates “the couple has legally married.”

“After December 31, 2018, unless such individuals are able to obtain separate authorization to remain in the United States through a change of nonimmigrant status with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, they will generally be expected to depart the country within 30 days,” reads the letter. “However, on or after October 1, 2018, partners of officers and employees of international organizations applying for a visa renewal in the United States must be married in order to qualify for a derivative G-4 visa.”

The letter notes the new policy applies to same-sex and opposite-sex partners. It does not specifically say they have to be legally married in the U.S. or in another jurisdiction.

“Same-sex spouses of officers and employees of international organizations will be treated the same as opposite-sex spouses when applying for a G-4 visa and for other immigration purposes,” it says. “When notifying OFM of new spouses of officers and employees of international organizations for accreditation, the respective international organization is requested to submit appropriate documentation that the couple is married.”

Alfonso Nam, president of UN-GLOBE, a group that advocates on behalf of the U.N.’s LGBTI employees, on Tuesday noted the majority of the world’s countries do not allow same-sex couples to legally marry.

“A policy that prioritizes marriages over all other forms of legal unions will have a chilling effect on all couples in the United States under a U.N.-sponsored visa who are in legal unions other than marriage,” he told the Blade.
 
“Whether it is an opposite-sex couple who did not get married for philosophical reasons, or a same-sex couple who did not get married because marriage was not a choice available to them, they would all now have to find a way to get married in order to remain in the United States,” added Nam.

GLIFAA, which represents LGBTI Foreign Service members, did not respond to a request for comment. Human Rights Government Affairs Director David Stacy told the Blade “it’s truly disappointing that the State Department is not being as accommodating as possible to foreign diplomats stationed in the United States who are from countries lacking marriage equality.”

“These families deserve to be fully recognized, and many are from nations who do recognize domestic partnerships and civil unions,” he told the Blade in a statement. “The State Department should be taking every step possible to ensure these families are able to stay together when representing their countries in the United States.”

The Obama administration in 2009 implemented a policy that asked countries to accredit same-sex partners of U.S. Foreign Service personnel on a “reciprocal basis” in order to receive diplomatic visas.

“Beginning October 1, 2018, members of the U.S. Foreign Service must be married to enjoy the rights and benefits of spouses,” a State Department official told the Blade on Monday. “Parallel to that, and based on the principle of reciprocity, under which our current policy is based, the department will likewise require that, as a general matter, officials from other governments be married to enjoy the rights and benefits of spouses for purposes of visa issuance and privileges and immunities.” 



“We will continue to rely on modified principles of reciprocity to advocate for equality in countries which will not permit same sex marriage or accept our same sex spouses as persons forming part of the family of the US officer, with appropriate privileges and immunities,” added the official.

Nam questioned the official’s statement about “principles of reciprocity.”

“If the principle of reciprocity is also applied to visas for spouses of U.N. employees, then same-sex couples working for the U.N. in the United States from countries that that do not recognize their same-sex unions would also not be welcome in the United States,” Nam told the Blade. “They would have no choice but to either leave the country, or live apart.”
 
“Same-sex spouses from the wrong countries could face enormous constraints to be able to live together in the United States,” he added.

The State Department official reiterated the policy in a follow-up email to the Blade on Tuesday.

“Starting Oct. 1, 2018, members of the U.S. Foreign Service must be married to enjoy the rights and benefits of spouses,” said the official.  “This is based on changes to U.S. law recognizing same-sex marriages. Therefore, the Department will likewise require that, as a general matter, officials from other governments and international organizations be married to enjoy the rights and benefits of spouses for purposes of visa issuance and privileges and immunities.”
 
“In order for opposite sex couples to enjoy the benefits and privileges of a diplomatic spouse, they must be married,” added the official. “The same is now true for same sex couples.”

The official also told the Blade the “change in policy is to promote fairness among all of our diplomats so that all spouses can be recognized as such and receive appropriate privileges and immunities for which they are eligible.”

“With this decision, the U.S. State Department is imposing the standard of marriage over all other forms of legal unions,” said Nam. “This will have a negative impact on same-sex couples working for the U.N. who already face limited choices when it comes to being able to get married.”

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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