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The U.S. Recognizes Straight Binational Marriages with Transgender Spouses

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The U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) issued a memorandum last week that updates the Adjudicator's Field Manual, a guide binding all agency staff overseeing immigration procedures. It spells out policy around immigration documents issued and marriage benefits given to transgender individuals. The interim memo, released for comment from stakeholders, is in effect until further notice from USCIS.

The directive is welcome news for the transgender community and its allies.

USCIS will now issue immigration documents that reflect an individual's gender identity, so long as the individual presents "an amended birth certificate, passport, or court order recognizing their new gender; or medical certification of the change in gender from a licensed physician." The memo points out that these criteria are "based on standards and recommendations of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health who are recognized as the authority in this field by the American Medical Association."

USCIS will also approve green-card petitions by American citizens or permanent residents for their spouses if a petitioner establishes that the transgender individual has legally changed their gender and subsequently married an individual of the other gender; that the marriage is recognized as a heterosexual marriage under the law where the union took place; and that the law where the marriage took place does not bar unions between transgender individuals and persons of the other gender.

The directive explicitly says that gender-reassignment surgery "is not required in order for USCIS to approve" petitions "unless the law of the place of marriage clearly requires sex reassignment surgery in order to accomplish a change in legal gender."

The National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) and Immigration Equality, advocates for transgender rights, applauded the development. The organizations have been working in tandem to advance these urgently needed policies, part of a comprehensive agenda for the fair treatment of transgender immigrants.

"Today's announcement is another example of the Obama Administration's long-term commitment to equality," NCTE Policy Counsel Harper Jean Tobin said Friday. "These revisions mean that trans people and their families can obtain accurate identification while maintaining their privacy. It'll also reduce bureaucratic delays, intrusive questions, and wrongful denials of immigration benefits."

"This Guidance is an important step forward for transgender immigrants and their families," added Victoria Neilson, Legal Director for Immigration Equality. "It brings USCIS in line with DOS [the Department of State] in its guidance for updating gender markers on identity documents -- no longer requiring any specific surgery, but instead allowing a doctor to certify the individual's gender." She added, "The memo affirms existing law and precedents, and recognizes that if a marriage is considered valid and opposite sex under state law, it is valid for immigration purposes."

This is certainly a step in the right direction, and the administration should be given credit for taking this move, but it leaves gay binational married couples, who are not afforded immigration benefits because of the Defense of Marriage (DOMA), out in the cold. Some of these couples also include a spouse who is transgender.

Tobin acknowledges the long path ahead: "While these two revisions aid some trans immigrants and their U.S. citizen spouses, and vice-versa, the revisions only highlight the need to eliminate the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act."