Without much fanfare, the Obama administration recently took a significant step towards helping lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, or LGBT, people fleeing persecution. The State Department is expanding its interpretation of the term "spouse" to include partners of same sex refugees and asylum seekers.
Buried in the State Department's annual report to Congress on refugee program admissions for fiscal year 2016, the government announced that it will allow an already qualified refugee to apply to bring their same-sex partner to the United States even if they are not legally married.
The refugee has to file an Affidavit of Relationship (AOR) providing evidence that the relationship has existed for at least one year overseas prior to the application; the relationship is on-going; and legal marriage in the home country was not possible due to "social and/or legal prohibitions."
"It's life-saving, honestly, for people who are fleeing persecution," said Sharita Gruberg, Senior Policy Analyst for the LGBT Research and Communications Project at the D.C.-based Center for American Progress.
"This policy will help insure that people seeking protection in the U.S. don't have to choose between their safety and their loved ones," Gruberg said.
The new policy isn't universal. It covers only people in what the State Department calls Process Priorities, or P-3, the family reunification program for certain countries experiencing humanitarian crises. They include 24 countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and Syria, as well as Somalia, Sudan, and much of Central America.
Nor is the new policy a slam dunk for LGBT applicants, said Gruberg. "Its not automatic. The partner has to be able to prove that they are eligible to be a refugee."
It's not easy to determine how many people the policy change will affect. The government doesn't keep data on how many LGBT refugees resettle in the United States. However, the number of people applying could be several thousand.
Still, the policy shift is a victory for a coalition of human rights groups advocating for LGBT equality, including HIAS (formerly, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society).
"This long overdue change in policy recognizes the unique challenges faced by LGBT refugees, many of whom were forced to flee their native countries precisely because of their identities, and come from places where legal commitments were either impossible or unsafe to make," said HIAS CEO and President Mark Hetfield.