This past Friday, April 2, the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) and the Council for Global Equality (CGE) submitted a letter to the Secretaries of State and Homeland Security with recommendations to improve equity in the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). Many refugee families who cannot legally marry or register their marriage in their countries of origin or the country to which they initially fled are prohibited from being resettled together in the United States through the refugee program due to unnecessary U.S. government policies.
For many LGBTQI+ refugee couples, it is logistically impossible and often dangerous to get married before arriving in the United States because same-sex marriage is still illegal in so many countries. Similarly, interfaith marriages are legally or socially prohibited in many countries, leading couples to “marry” outside of the law, if at all. And in many countries hosting refugees, particularly in camp settings, formal civil documents like birth or marriage records are difficult if not impossible for refugees to obtain.
IRAP currently has clients that are stuck in this exact situation. For example, IRAP is representing two women from Iraq who are a same-sex couple, and who have been stuck in Lebanon for the last five years, unable to find a solution or a way to get to safety. One of the women qualifies for refugee status in the United States based on previous U.S.-affiliated employment in Iraq. Although her application was approved and she was set to travel to the United States a number of years ago, the U.S. government refused to add her partner to her case file, and she was ultimately unable to travel to safety as she would not leave her partner behind. Although these two women have been in a committed relationship for over 25 years, the U.S. government does not recognize them as spouses because they are not legally married. They would be legally married but for the fact that same-sex marriage is illegal in both their home country of Iraq, as well as in Lebanon where they currently are.
The Biden administration took initial steps to address this issue: on February 4, 2021, President Biden signed an Executive Order instructing DHS and DOS to consider recognizing, for purposes of the refugee program, individuals “who are in committed life partnerships but who are unable to marry or to register their marriage due to restrictions in the law or practices of their country of origin, including for individuals in same-sex, interfaith, or camp-based marriages.”
In the letter submitted last week, IRAP and CGE urged the Secretary of State and Secretary of Homeland Security to carry out the President’s directive. The letter laid out the case that previous changes in the agencies’ treatment of refugee families provide precedent authorizing them to reconsider and expand their interpretation of the term “spouse.”
The letter recommends to DOS and USCIS that expansion of the term “spouse” should include couples who cannot marry or register their marriage in their countries of origin or asylum, including because the refugee families are camp-based, interfaith, or LGBTQI+. USRAP should be accessible to families who are unable to marry–and should not perpetuate the harms and discrimination that often force refugee families to flee from their countries of origin in the first place.
Read the letter here.