New Diplomatic Visa Policy Takes Effect

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 took effect on Monday.

A State Department letter the Washington Blade obtained last month 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 Monday "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 State Department letter that was distributed on July 20 also 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."

Senior administration officials who spoke with reporters on a conference call on Tuesday said the new policy is consistent with the U.S. Supreme Court's 2015 ruling in the Obergefell case that extended marriage rights to same-sex couples across the country. They also said the new policy would impact 105 families, with 55 of them working with international organizations.

The State Department letter notes the new policy applies to same-sex and opposite-sex partners.

"Is to promote the equal treatment of all family members and couples," said a senior administration official on Tuesday.

Alfonso Nam, president of UN-GLOBE, a group that advocates on behalf of the U.N.'s LGBTI employees, told the Blade last month that most countries have yet to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples. Human Rights Campaign Government Affairs Director David Stacy in a statement described the new policy as "an unconscionable, needless attack on some LGBTQ diplomats from around the world, and it reflects the hostility of the Trump-Pence administration toward LGBTQ people."

"It is unnecessary, mean-spirited, and unacceptable," he said.

Former U.S. Ambassador to the Dominican Republic James "Wally" Brewster on Tuesday told the Blade he "saw how difficult it was to get accreditation for my husband (Bob Satawake) as a diplomat to a country where same-sex marriage was not recognized."

"It will limit quality leaders from around the globe from working here in international organizations," added Brewster, referring to the new visa policy. "The argument of treating it the same as opposite sex relationships is either a smokescreen or another example of how this administration is blind to the facts. Either way the physical and legal damage many would face in their countries where it illegal to be married is real."

Former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power in a tweet described it as "needlessly cruel and bigoted."

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. A State Department official with whom the Blade spoke last month said U.S. Foreign Service personnel as of Monday "must be married to enjoy the rights and benefits of spouses."

"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," said the official.

"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.

A senior administration official on Tuesday told the Blade the new policy is "not meant to be punitive" against LGBTI diplomats and their families.

"This is certainly not an attack," said the official.

Then-U.S. Ambassador to the Dominican Republic James "Wally" Brewster, left, and his husband, Bob Satawake, in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, in 2015. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The Washington Blade will update this story with additional reaction. This article originally appeared in the Washington Blade and is made available in partnership with the National LGBT Media Association.