The Trump administration endangered LGBTQI lives globally. It undermined the refugee resettlement program and asylum protections for LGBTQI people fleeing persecution, while also signaling to leaders around the world that if they undermined LGBTQI rights and persecuted this population, they would not face consequences from the U.S. government.
Fortunately, President Joe Biden has signaled a strong desire to change course. After only a few months in office, he has taken significant actions to strengthen the refugee resettlement program and advance the rights of LGBTQI people in all federal programs.
Biden’s Executive Order on Rebuilding and Enhancing Programs to Resettle Refugees and Planning for the Impact of Climate Change on Migration directs his administration to “seek opportunities to enhance access to the refugee program” for populations that are particularly vulnerable to persecution. In addition, the order explicitly references individuals at risk related to their “gender, gender expression, or sexual orientation.” It also directs the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to consider recognizing as “spouses” those who are in committed life partnerships but unable to marry due to restrictions on marriage in their countries of origin—guidance that builds on the Obama administration’s steps toward increased inclusivity in refugee resettlement for same-sex couples.
The same day this executive order was released, President Biden also issued a Memorandum on Advancing the Human Rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Intersex Persons Around the World. The memo directs the departments of State and Homeland Security to enhance access to protection and assistance for LGBTQI refugees and asylum-seekers and to ensure that “the Federal Government takes all appropriate steps, such as potential increased use of Embassy Priority-1 referrals, to identify and expedite resettlement of highly vulnerable persons with urgent protection needs.” This is key to ensuring that LGBTQI people are brought to safety as soon as possible, which is particularly important when they are in situations, such as camps, where they continue to face persecution.
Later, in a February 12 report to Congress on presidential refugee admissions, President Biden reiterated the priorities outlined in his executive actions, proposing that the secretary of state should consult with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to develop methods of access to the refugee resettlement program for individuals persecuted on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, or sex characteristics.
President Biden’s executive actions—which include raising the refugee admissions ceiling to 62,500 for the fiscal year 2021—provide a robust framework for the U.S. government to restore its obligation to provide protections for LGBTQI people fleeing persecution. Now, it is incumbent on the departments of State, Homeland Security, and Health and Human Services to meaningfully implement these directives.
Below are four recommendations that agencies should consider when implementing President Biden’s directives, so that they can restore and strengthen humanitarian protections for LGBTQI refugees.
1. Collect voluntary data on sexual orientation and gender identity in the refugee resettlement program
The State Department does not know how many LGBTQI refugees it resettles. Without this basic information, it is impossible to accurately assess the adequacy of the refugee resettlement program in meeting the needs of LGBTQI refugees and identifying areas for improvement. In light of the fact that more than half of U.S. states lack nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQI people, this information is critical to ensure that LGBTQI refugees are resettled in affirming locations where they are able to access programs and services that help them successfully integrate into their new home country.
As President Biden highlighted in his Executive Order on Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government, “This lack of data has cascading effects and impedes efforts to measure and advance equity. A first step to promoting equity in Government action is to gather the data necessary to inform that effort.”
2. Allow for the joint resettlement of unmarried same-sex partners
There are only 29 countries where same-sex marriage is currently legal. As a result, LGBTQI people are often forced to choose between seeking safety or remaining with their loved ones.
The U.S. departments of State and Homeland Security, however, have the authority to allow unmarried same-sex partners to safely resettle together in the United States. The U.S. government should be flexible when considering whether relevant evidence is sufficient to establish a qualifying “life partnership” that would allow two individuals to be resettled together.
3. Provide P2 designation for LGBTQI refugees
The State Department has the ability to identify specific groups as being in need of resettlement, and this processing can be done in country via a P2 designation. For LGBTQI individuals who may be unable to flee or who face equally hostile situations in neighboring countries, such a designation can be one way to safely and quickly resettle LGBTQI people.
To implement President Biden’s directives and address the urgent protection needs of LGBTQI refugees, it is necessary to include a new P2 designation for LGBTQI persons. However, it is also important to consider other options for accelerated resettlement based on appropriate criteria—for example, embassy referrals and referrals from trusted LGBTQI organizations, in line with the aforementioned executive order’s directive to expand mechanisms for nongovernmental organizations to identify and directly refer particularly vulnerable individuals for resettlement.
4. Invest in LGBTQI refugee integration programs
LGBTQI refugees are at risk of discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity, creating unique needs compared with other refugee populations. They have fled persecution based on their sexual orientation and gender identity; but while many refugees flee persecution by state actors, LGBTQI people are often fleeing violence from their own family or community members.
For this reason, it is important for the U.S. government to support programs that meet the needs of LGBTQI refugees and allow them to thrive in their new home. This should be done by funding educational, employment, housing, language access, and health services that are specifically targeted to the needs of LGBTQI refugees.
President Biden’s executive actions provide a clear indication that the United States is once again upholding its obligations under international and domestic law to provide refuge to people fleeing persecution. These actions, combined with the administration’s commitment to advancing the rights of LGBTQI people in the United States and around the globe, present an invaluable opportunity to protect vulnerable populations such as LGBTQI refugees.
Sharita Gruberg is the vice president for the LGBTQ Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress.