LAFAYETTE, La. (AP) — Two weeks before their wedding, Viet “Victor” Anh Vo and his fiancee were stunned when a court clerk rejected their application for a marriage license because he couldn’t produce a birth certificate.
The couple had spent thousands of dollars on a wedding planner, caterer, florist, disc jockey and a reception hall for 350 guests before they learned that a newly amended Louisiana law would block them from getting married. They went ahead with February’s ceremony without a license to make it official, but they aren’t giving up on legally tying the knot.
Vo, a 31-year-old U.S. citizen who was born in an Indonesian refugee camp, sued Tuesday in federal court to challenge a law that has prevented other immigrants from getting married for the same reason he couldn’t.
“I don’t understand the law. I just want them to fix it, to make things right,” Vo told The Associated Press during an interview in his Lafayette hometown.
It’s not clear whether the lawsuit could have implications outside of the state. Neither the law’s critics nor officials with the National Conference of State Legislatures are aware of such legislation elsewhere, although NCSL spokesman Mick Bullock noted that the organization doesn’t closely track marriage license requirements.
In Louisiana, however, the legislation has pitted the rights of immigrants against lawmakers who say they are trying to prevent fraudulent marriages.
The Republican legislator who sponsored January’s changes in the state’s marriage laws said it was designed to crack down on people using sham marriages to gain visas and citizenship. Vo’s suit claims the law violates his constitutional rights and was intended to discriminate against foreign-born people.
Vo has lived in Louisiana since he was an infant and became a U.S. citizen when he was 8 years old, but he doesn’t have any official record of his 1985 birth in a refugee camp after his parents fled Vietnam. Vietnamese and Indonesian authorities didn’t officially recognize his birth or issue his family a birth certificate, according to his suit.
That wouldn’t have been an insurmountable hurdle for Vo if he and his U.S.-born fiancee, Heather Pham, had applied for a marriage license before the law’s changes took effect on Jan. 1. Before then, they could have petitioned a judge to waive the birth certificate requirement.
But the amended law eliminated the waiver option for foreign-born applicants, whereas U.S.-born applicants who can’t produce a birth certificate are still eligible for judicial waivers.
Vo’s lawsuit says the law imposes a “complex web of new and sometimes unobtainable requirements” on foreign-born applicants beyond birth certificates, such as making them present a passport from their country of birth or an unexpired visa.
“Without the court’s intervention, Mr. Vo — and others like him across the state — will continue to suffer irreparable injury from his inability to legally marry in his community, or anywhere in the state, under Louisiana state law,” it says.
State Health Secretary Rebekah Gee, whose department compiles marriage licenses and other vital records, and the court clerks for three south Louisiana parishes are among the defendants.
Vo is represented by attorneys from the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice and the National Immigration Law Center, a Los Angeles-based group that advocates for immigrants’ rights. Alvaro Huerta, a staff attorney for the latter group, said he doesn’t know of any other state with a marriage license law like Louisiana’s.
The change in the law was sponsored by state Rep. Valarie Hodges, a Republican, and signed into law last year by former Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Hodges said in a statement last week that marriage fraud “was and still is a problem,” citing a recent string of arrests in Mississippi of people accused of plotting to obtain citizenship through sham marriages. She also cited the sham marriage arranged for two terrorists who carried out last December’s deadly attack in San Bernardino, California.
“I am very pro-marriage and respect and promote the institution of marriage but I am also adamantly opposed to the cheapening of marriage by those who want to abuse the system in order to commit marriage fraud,” Hodges said.
State Sen. Conrad Appel, a Republican who opposed the measure, said he hasn’t seen any evidence that fraudulent marriage is a problem in Louisiana.
“The arguments made by the bill’s proponents were without merit and obviously have caused great harm,” he said.
Hodges said she is open to tweaking the law during the next legislative session, which starts in April. The Louisiana Family Forum, a Christian conservative group that backed the law, also said it isn’t opposed to revisiting the birth certificate provision “as long as the integrity of the process is maintained and there is ample evidence that the license is not being obtained fraudulently.”
“We have no desire to place unnecessary roadblocks to legal marriage,” the group said in a statement last week. “However, we do maintain that fraudulent marriage is a detriment to families and to our state.”
Jeff Hickerson, who oversees marriage licenses for the East Baton Rouge Parish Clerk of Court, said the office has turned down three or four foreign-born applicants who couldn’t produce a birth certificate after the law took effect.
“We don’t really even know what to tell them because there’s nothing in the law that gives them an alternative other than getting a birth certificate,” Hickerson said.
Vo, a small business owner, said he felt like a second-class citizen after the court clerk’s office in Vermilion Parish denied his application for a marriage license. Clerk’s offices in two other parishes gave him the same answer.
“I felt confused and a little bit lost,” he said. “I thought it was supposed to be easy.”
Frustrated and embarrassed, the couple only told their closest relatives that their marriage wouldn’t be legally recognized by the state. And they had to persuade a Catholic priest to perform the ceremony without a license.
Vo said he agreed to be a plaintiff for the lawsuit so that others don’t have to endure the same ordeal.
“It’s always in the back of my mind,” he said.
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