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The Quiet Memorandum That Will Keep Many Families Fleeing Persecution Together

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In 2018 and 2019, President Trump abandoned a long-standing refugee and asylum policy by issuing guidance that instructed USCIS officers to only consider marriages that were valid under the law of their home country. Unfortunately, this excluded many LGBTQ families, interfaith marriages, and those who were married in refugee camps with informal social structures not recognized by local law. 

This policy change had tragic consequences as refugees and asylum seekers were no longer able to adjudicate their cases simultaneously, separating many families fleeing persecution as they worked their way through the immigration system. With the additional unnecessary vetting implemented by the previous administration and the general complex nature of obtaining a humanitarian status, these separations could last years and in some cases indefinitely. 

On Monday, February 15, Biden rolled back this cruel policy, instructing refugee and asylum officers to return to their previous standard which will allow those seeking status “to be considered spouses even when their marriages are not recognized by their countries of origin.” When a couple cannot prove their marriage with legal documentation, officers are instructed to use their discretion by evaluating unions based on circumstances as a whole, signaling a legitimate lifelong commitment. 

Additional good news is that this policy also noted that children of spouses applying for derivative status may qualify as a stepchild if the informal marriage creating the child’s status occurred before the child turned 18. This means stepchildren whose parents’ marriages were not recognized in their country of origin will also be able to adjudicate their claims simultaneously and not face family separation. 

Finally, the agency stated that it will allow those who were denied or separated under the previous policy to ask an officer to reexamine the circumstances so that their cases can be adjudicated together. This would mean families fleeing persecution could be reunited as they work through the complex immigration system. 

Although many aspects of our refugee and asylum system remain broken, this small step will be life-changing for many vulnerable families seeking relief and is hopefully one of many policies from the Trump-era Biden will rectify throughout his time in office.