Love Knows No Borders
By Alvaro M. Huerta, NILC staff attorney
NOVEMBER 3, 2016
Victor Vo met Heather Pham, and they fell in love. They decided to get married and, for more than a year, they meticulously planned a gorgeous wedding celebration. The decorations, the deejay, and the dinner menu were all set. Invitations were sent to over three hundred friends and family members. But just two weeks before the ceremony, the state of Louisiana—the place they call home—refused to grant Victor and Heather a marriage license.
Victor, you see, is an immigrant. His parents fled war-torn Vietnam, and he was born in an Indonesian refugee camp. When Victor was only three months old, his parents brought him and his brother to the United States and settled in Louisiana, where Victor has lived ever since. Victor obtained U.S. citizenship through his father when he was just eight years old. But despite being a U.S. citizen, Victor is missing one very important document: a birth certificate. Neither Vietnam nor Indonesia gave him a birth certificate, and he cannot get one now because neither country made a record of his birth. Unfortunately, Victor’s situation is not an uncommon one for refugees.
State representative Valarie Hodges sponsored the bill that made it impossible for Victor and Heather to get married in their home state. After it was passed by the legislature, the law was signed by then-governor Bobby Jindal and went into effect on Jan. 1, 2016. Among new requirements it imposes, the law requires all marriage license applicants to provide a certified birth certificate.
That requirement can be hard to meet. It’s not just refugees like Victor who might not have a birth certificate or can’t get one. For example, many people born outside of cities or towns, or at home, may never have been issued a birth certificate. And Louisiana is certainly no stranger to natural disasters, including hurricanes and floods, that have ruined people’s vital documents. Normally, Louisiana law allows folks to get a waiver of the birth certificate requirement if one of these situations applies. But for those born outside the U.S., the new law removed the possibility of getting a waiver.
Victor has now been forced to sue the state in order to get a marriage license. Since news of the lawsuit, Rep. Hodges has called the portion of the law that prevents Victor and Heather from getting married a “technical oversight” that she hopes to fix through new legislation. But she has continued to insist that the new document-related requirements are necessary, saying that the law is meant to prevent people from committing marriage fraud in order to obtain immigration benefits.
There’s little if any evidence, however, that immigrants in Louisiana are committing marriage fraud. It’s clear that the true motivation behind the new law is anti-immigrant sentiment, plain and simple. If you make it hard to live in the state, the thinking goes, then immigrants will move away and maybe even leave the country. This delusional “self-deportation” logic has been championed by anti-immigrant leaders and has been taken up by multiple presidential and congressional candidates over the last several election cycles. It’s irresponsible and un-American.
And in this day and age, laws like Louisiana’s are blatantly unconstitutional. Almost 50 years ago, the Supreme Court outlawed laws prohibiting interracial marriage. And, in 2015, the Supreme Court extended the fundamental right to marry to same-sex couples. The fact that many states were denying that right, the Court recognized, deprived some couples of “equal dignity in the eyes of the law.” There is absolutely no reason why that same right should be denied to someone based on where they, or the person they love, were born.
Louisiana is wrong to erect a wall that prevents two people who love each other from getting married. This new law will not stand, because love knows no borders.