Last month, the Obama administration quietly made it easier for LGBT people fleeing persecution in their home countries to immigrate to the United States.
In its annual report to Congress, State Department officials expanded the rights generally reserved for the spouses of asylum seekers to include same-sex partners for those fleeing countries where homosexuality is illegal.
The policy shift will apply only those who are fleeing countries the State Department has designated “Process Priorities” countries, or P-3, because of humanitarian crises. There are currently 24 P-3 countries which include Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, and several Central American countries. Homosexuality is criminalized in many of them and carries steep sentences including death in some instances.
The State Department explained its reason for the policy change by noting that legal marriage “was not an obtainable option due to social and/or legal prohibitions” in their home countries.
Here is the language from the 82-page report:
“The legal definition of ‘spouse’ remains unchanged,” State Department spokesperson Elizabeth Trudeau said. “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.”
Secretary of State John Kerry said that the United States will increase the number of refugees it accepts from around the world from 70,000 to 100,000 by 2017. The shift is in response to the growing humanitarian crises of displacement.
There are more people forcibly displaced now than at any time since World War II, according to the United Nations. The countries where the majority of refugees come from doesn’t line up with the countries where the majority of LGBT refugees come from. That’s why some policy experts have taken issue with the limitation of the same-sex partners provision to those fleeing only P-3 countries.
“Significantly, the countries that LGBT people appear to flee most often are not accounted for in the P-3 countries list,” Sharita Gruberg, a policy analyst with the Center for American Progress (CAP), said in a statement.
Only about 15 percent of LGBT asylum seekers to the U.S. were from P-3 countries, according to analysis by CAP.
LGBT people face very real threats not only at the hands of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, but even after fleeing to neighboring countries. Still, the majority of LGBT asylum seekers do not line up with the countries that refugees are fleeing en masse. Instead, they come largely from countries like Russia, Jamaica, Uganda, and Nigeria which are not P-3 countries and so will not be included in this new provision.
Another issue is the requirement for LGBT applicants to provide evidence that they were in a relation with someone of the same-sex for a year. Such proof might be hard to provide for those who were forced to hide their sexuality in order to survive in countries with harsh laws or social customs targeting LGBT people.