Democratic Lawmakers Challenge State Department Same-Sex Visa Limits

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo changed the policy in July. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo changed the policy in July. Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

Adjustments to visa policy for same-sex foreign diplomats enacted by the State Department late last month have drawn fire from 20 Democratic senators and some 119 House members.

The new policy of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would deny, with some exceptions depending on country or origin, diplomatic (G-4) visas for unmarried same-sex partners of foreign envoys and their employees assigned to the United States or international organizations based here. Current envoys have until Dec. 31 to present a certificate of marriage or face deportation.

The move was taken in recognition of the Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges permitting same-sex marriages, but the Democratic critics argue that only 26 countries—or 13 percent of United Nations member states—permit same-sex marriage.

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“This policy has the potential to be unnecessarily cruel and fails to take into account some of the challenges faced by same-sex couples,” said the Oct. 11 letter from Sens. Bob Casey, D-Ore.; Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.; Chris Coons, D-Del.; and 17 others. “This new policy could not only deter foreign diplomats from bringing their families to the United States, but threatens the progress made on this front.”

It follows a House version dated Oct. 5 led by Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla.; Brad Schneider, D-Ill.; David Cicilline, D-R.I.; Joaquin Castro, D-Texas; Eliot Engel, D-N.Y.; and Frank Pallone, D-N.J. They too warned Pompeo that the policy change would put U.S. diplomats at risk overseas. “Because countries issue visas in a reciprocal manner, there is potential this policy could open up our diplomats to retaliation abroad, something that is not only unjust but potentially puts their physical safety at risk in certain parts of the world.”

The State Department for years has been moving away from policies that in the last century put gay employees at risk of being summarily fired. In 2015, six openly gay U.S. ambassadors gathered to mark the change in eras.

“To bar LGBTQ diplomats from bringing their partners to the United States is to condone the discriminatory policies of many countries around the world,” wrote the senators. “This new rule discriminates against diplomats from countries where same-sex marriage is still illegal.

The State Department has acknowledged receipt of the letters but has a policy of not commenting on congressional correspondence. 

The issue was addressed in an Oct 2 conference call with reporters speaking to three unnamed senior officials. They stressed that the change in policy was begun in July to “match the department’s own policy with respect to family members who are serving abroad, … to promote the equal treatment of all family members and couples,… in light of the 2015 Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage.”

About 105 families would be affected by the recent changes in the United States, and 55 within international organizations, they said, promising to work with governments in countries where same-sex marriage is not legal to assure that U.S. diplomats receive equitable treatment. And with regard to international organizations based in the United States, “we expect that there will be lots of questions from that since our policy is slightly different,” the officials added, “and we are happy to review any such cases specifically and certainly look forward to doing that and working with them to find a solution.”

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