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Indonesian Refugee Sues Louisiana for Right to Marry

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Viet “Victor” Anh Vo can’t marry his fiancee in Louisiana because Vo, an Indonesian refugee who is a naturalized U.S. citizen, has been unable to produce a certified birth certificate.

“I’ve lived in Louisiana nearly all my life and had been dating Heather (Pham) for over 10 years before we decided to get married,” said Vo, who had a ceremony in the Catholic tradition last year. “I was shocked and disappointed to find out that I couldn’t legally marry her in my hometown in Louisiana.”

If Vo and Heather had only decided to get married a couple of months sooner.

Former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) signed HB 836 in July 2015. It went into effect January 2016, a month before Vo and Heather planned to legally tie the knot.

HB 836 bars anyone from receiving a marriage license without a valid birth certificate, valid international ID or passport. It also requires the couple apply for the license to swear they didn’t lie on the paperwork.

Vo has been a resident of Louisiana since he was 3 months old, but he was never issued an official birth certificate because he was born in a refugee camp in Indonesia after his parents fled Vietnam. His fiancée also is a U.S. citizen.

The couple only learned two weeks before their planned wedding — after they had spent thousands of dollars on a wedding planner, caterer, disc jockey and a reception hall for 350 guests — that an amended Louisiana law meant they couldn’t get married.

Vo and Heather got married anyway in February. But the marriage is not legally recognized in Louisiana.

Vo filed suit Oct. 18 in federal court. He is challenging a law preventing him and Heather, and other immigrants, from getting married in Louisiana.

“I don’t understand the law. I just want them to fix it, to make things right,” Vo told the AP.

The National Immigration Law Center, the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice and a Louisiana law firm, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher, & Flom LLP, have taken on his case at no charge.

NILC staff attorney Alvaro Huerta said the legal team has been in contact with other Louisiana residents who stated that they have been denied marriage licenses because, like Vo, they couldn’t produce a certified birth certificate.

“We love who we love,” said Huerta. “And the Constitution protects our right to marry the person we love, regardless of where we or they were born. The state of Louisiana is denying this fundamental right to many of its residents by making it impossible for them to get a marriage license. That is both morally wrong and unconstitutional.”

Republican Louisiana Rep. Valarie Hodges doesn’t see it that way at all.

While those backing Vo said the new law was just a covert attempt to regulate immigration in Louisiana, Hodges said she sponsored HB 836 to protect the institution of marriage.

“It protects the reliability and the accuracy of information and it assures that the marriage process is not subject to fraud,” Hodges told the Louisiana Radio Network.

Hodges said regulating immigration had nothing to do with her motivation for sponsoring HB 836. But she freely admitted the legislation was intended to make sure immigrants are in the U.S. legally before they get married.

And she doesn’t see that as a bad thing.

“It does deal with marriage fraud being a very common way for foreign nationals to gain permanent residency in the United States,” Hodges said. “We don’t want terrorists obtaining green cards and citizenship through marriage.”

Mary Yanik, a New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice staff attorney, said anyone who believes Hodges was only interested in keeping terrorists out of the U.S. would be naive at best.

“This law panders to mean-spirited and regressive elements within Louisiana politics,” Yanik said. “Attacking the right to marriage is part of an attrition strategy aimed at denying immigrants their most basic humanity. Immigrant families will defeat it by defying it.”

Yanik said dozens of naturalized U.S. citizens have endured the expense of traveling from Louisiana to other states to get married because of HB 836.

Out Xanamane, whose family fled Laos in 1975, and his common-law wife, Marilyn Cheng, were married in a Buddhist temple in 1997. That was enough for them until Cheng’s employer in Louisiana asked for a copy of their marriage certificate so that Xanamane could be covered under her insurance policy.

The Washington Post reported Xanamane and Chen immediately went to a courthouse with every piece of ID they had, except his birth certificate. Who knows what happened to that in Laos in 1975, or if the piece of paper ever existed?

Their request to be married was rejected several times. Finally, Xanamane and Cheng drove to Alabama to get married.

When it was introduced in 2015, Louisiana State Sen. Conrad Appel (R) warned his fellow lawmakers HB 836 would produce unintended consequences and hardship for naturalized U.S. citizens.

Appel said the stories of Xanamane, Chen, and Vo prove he was right.

“I think it is going to get worse and worse,” Appel told the Times-Picayune. “If people want to get married, I want them to get married.”

A few days before Vo filed suit challenging the law she sponsored, Hodges admitted HB 836 could be improved.

She promised to work with the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office to allow immigrant couples to marry legally in the state and to “tweak” the legislation in next spring’s session.