Louisiana is standing between a former refugee, his girlfriend of several years, and a marriage license.
Viet “Victor” Anh Vo — who was born in an Indonesian refugee camp after his parents fled Vietnam — is suing the state of Louisiana after being denied the right to get married, according to a complaint filed on Tuesday.
Vo was brought to the country as a three-month-old baby. He became a U.S. citizen when he was eight years old. He was never issued a birth certificate and is recognized by neither Indonesia nor Vietnam.
That’s why Vo and his fiancee — who is a U.S. citizen — have been unable to get legally married. A new state law that went into effect earlier this year requires immigrants to produce specific documents like a copy of their birth certificate and an unexpired visa in order to get a marriage license.
Had Vo and his fiancée gotten married before December 31, 2015, they likely could have gotten a birth certificate waiver. But now that Louisiana’s law is in place, they don’t have any options.
“Despite the fact that Mr. Vo provided other official documents to establish his identity, including a Social Security Number and a Louisiana state driver’s license, the Vermilion Parish Clerk of Court refused to approve Mr. Vo and Ms. Pham’s marriage license application,” the complaint reads in part.
Even after Vo returned to three separate clerks with a letter explaining why he couldn’t get a birth certificate, the couple was still denied a marriage license.
Vo’s complaint alleges that the state law violates the Due Process Clause and Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because it is specifically intended to discriminate against people born outside the country. He’s being represented by the advocacy groups New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice and the National Immigration Law Center.
State Rep. Valerie Hodges (R-LA), the sponsor of the legislation, said in January that the law would prevent undocumented immigrants from marrying solely to get immigration benefits and would help prevent terrorists from getting green cards and citizenship.
Immigrant advocates say Lousiana’s law is unnecessary because there isn’t much evidence that this type of marriage fraud is in fact occurring.
“The specter of marriage fraud, much like the specter of voter fraud, is essentially a solution looking for a problem,” said Shin-Ming Wong, the supervising helpline attorney at the National Center for Lesbian Rights, noting that he has yet to see clients at his organization who aren’t marrying out of love. “If you think about the legal rights and responsibilities of marriage, it’s a very serious legal status to enter into. The likelihood that people would enter into marriage for fraudulent reasons is likely very low.”
And Hodges’ law ended up being even broader than that — affecting not just undocumented immigrants, but also U.S. citizens and refugees like Vo.
Soon after Vo’s complaint was filed, Hodges told the Associated Press that she would introduce an amendment that would allow foreign-born people living legally in the United States to get married, even if they can’t produce a birth certificate. She insisted that the fact that people like Vo are ineligible for judicial waivers under her law was merely a “technical oversight.”
Oversight or not, there are many reasons why even lawful immigrants may be unable to provide birth certificates. Some come from countries where births aren’t registered. Others are fleeing persecution and violence, so they leave everything behind. Still others can’t get help from their consulates.
“As you can imagine, the haste with which some people have to leave [their home countries] means they don’t necessarily have time to gather all their documents,” Wong said. “Certainly there’s little chance of them returning to the country to get the documents they may need.”
Despite the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that marriage is a fundamental right for almost everyone, regardless of immigration status, the Louisiana law already adds extra burdens for some people who are turning to neighboring states to get married.
“It seems like a bad target to make marriage hard for anyone who wants to enter into a union with a person that they love,” Alvaro Huerta, staff attorney at the National Immigration Law Center, told ThinkProgress.
Huerta pointed out that other states and localities have attempted to limit immigrants’ ability to obtain marriage licenses in the past. In 2008, a federal court in Pennsylvania ruled that it was unconstitutional for clerks to refuse marriage licenses to immigrants who can’t prove their lawful presence in the United States. After Alabama passed an anti-immigrant state law in 2011, some counties refused marriage licenses to immigrants who couldn’t produce documentation.
And the issue isn’t limited to marriage documents. Texas reached a settlement deal last year to give some undocumented parents access to birth certificates for their children born in the state.
“This trend is a little unsettling,” Huerta said. “I hope it doesn’t portend the use of document requirements to make life harder for immigrants, which it seems right now to be what it’s trying to do.”