US extends visas to same-sex foreign spouses

Secretary of state says same-sex foreign spouses of US citizens may now apply for visas at US consulates and embassies

When the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act in June, Obama advised U.S. agencies to review policies.
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Melanie Servetas left a high-paying corporate job in California to live with her spouse, Claudia Amaral -- whom she met on an online dating website -- in Brazil.

"We both knew there was no way for her to come to the U.S.," Servetas said, "I left my family and friends. I invested in an IT company she already had running to get a visa." 

Servetas, 47, invested $150,000 -- almost all of her savings -- in her relationship, which blossomed at first over Skype.

Servetas and Amaral married shortly after the Supreme Court ruled in June that the Defense of Marriage Act -- which defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman -- was unconstitutional. Since then, same-sex couples have been going to American embassies and consulates around the world to apply for visas, only to be told that until there was official guidance from the State Department, they could not being the process of obtaining visas for their partners.

The State Department was still in the process of reviewing its policies. But on Friday, while on their honeymoon in the U.S., Servetas and Amaral learned that Secretary of State John Kerry had announced that U.S. consulates and embassies around the world would begin processing visa applications for gay couples the same way it does for straight couples.

"If you are the spouse of a U.S. citizen, your visa application will be treated equally," Kerry said. "If you are the spouse of a non-citizen, your visa application will be treated equally. If you are in a country that doesn't recognize your same-sex marriage, then your visa application will still be treated equally at every single one of our 222 visa processing centers around the world."

"We are so happy to have our feet on American soil," Servetas said. "Thank God Secretary Kerry has given specific directions to the Department of State, so they are in step with immigration."  

Bi-national, same-sex couples living in the United States have already been able to apply for visas for their spouses through the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the distribution of such visas domestically. On Tuesday, authorities approved a permanent resident visa application for Traian Popov, a Bulgarian national, who lives with his spouse Julian Marsh, an American, in Florida.

“We knew that the Department of State would eventually agree. But we’ve been waiting for their official announcement,” said Victoria Neilson, legal director at Immigration Equality, an organization that advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender immigrants. “This gives the consulates the green light to start applications.”

The State Department website featured a notice Friday morning alerting visitors to the change in protocol.

“Same-sex spouses of U.S. citizens and Lawful Permanent Residents (LPRs), along with their minor children, are now eligible for the same immigration benefits as opposite-sex spouses,” the site read.

Neilson said couples separated by immigration hurdles may be reunited, and that according to a 2006 survey by Immigration Equality and Human Rights Watch, some 46,000 bi-national, same-sex couples were living in the U.S., but she is unaware of any estimates on the number of bi-national, same-sex partners who would be applying for U.S. visas abroad.

Servetas said she is happy to be back in the United States, although visa application procedures for Amaral may still take up to 10 months.

"Brazil has been very difficult for us. It's a beautiful country, but it's been very difficult to live there," Servetas said. "I would consider it an emerging nation -- health care is different there, poverty and corruption are prevalent... I appreciate that Brazil gave me an opportunity to marry Claudia when my own country didn't."

Brazil legalized gay marriage in May. Servetas obtained permanent residency there when she married Amaral.

Servetas says reintegrating herself into U.S. society will take her some time.

"There comes a penalty with having to leave the country," she said. "I need to find a job again. We are in a state of limbo. I have to go where I can find a job, and Claudia will work as well. We are only one step of the way."

Al Jazeera with wire services

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