U.S. citizen born in refugee camp challenges state law after being denied marriage certificate

By Trisha Marczak | Nov 11, 2016

NEW ORLEANS — A 31-year-old U.S. citizen born in a refugee camp is suing the state of Louisiana over a law that requires a birth certificate to marry.

Viet “Victor” Anh Vo and his U.S.-born fiance were denied a marriage certificate in 2016 after Vo was unable to provide a birth certificate, a requirement made mandatory on Jan. 1 following the passage of House Bill 836.

“The law by its text targets anyone born outside the U.S., because it requires certain documents," Mary Yanik, a trial lawyer with the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice (NOWCRJ) representing Vo, told the Louisiana Record. "It is disproportionately affecting refugees, people who fled their country under really unfortunate circumstances and likely don’t have a birth certificate. They were fleeing a war, they were in a situation where they couldn’t get their documents in order.”

Vo was born in an Indonesian refugee camp in 1985 after his family fled Vietnam. Neither Vietnam nor Indonesia recognized his birth, leaving him without an official birth certificate. At eight years old, Vo became a U.S. citizen and has since lived in Louisiana.

The lawsuit was filed Oct. 18 following the 2015 incident. The couple still held their Catholic ceremony, which included 350 guests, without the marriage certificate. Now, Vo is challenging the law, claiming it limited his right to marry.

“The law is very clear. When a piece of legislation discriminates based on place of birth, there are very narrow circumstances where that is OK,” Yanik said. “We don’t think the law will ever pass that test.”

HB 836 was sponsored by Rep. Valarie Hodges (R-Denham Springs) under the argument that it would cut down on sham marriages involving illegal immigrants attempting to obtain green cards. The law now requires those applying for a marriage certificate to provide a birth certificate, valid international identification or passport.

Provisions in the bill also targeted judge’s discernment, removing previous provisions that allowed judges to override documentation requirements on a case-by-case basis.

Before the bill passed, it was met by opposition from both political parties who claimed it was not an attack on illegal immigration, but on marriage. Vo’s defense team agrees, arguing the law represents a page from the past and targets minority populations.

“This law harkens back to Louisiana’s shameful past, but the law isn’t who Louisiana is. Louisiana and the South have also been the birthplace of incredible social movements and civil rights,” Yanik said. “This lawsuit represents a continuation of that history of pushing back on discriminatory laws of people of color and immigrants.”

Vo’s case represents more than just his own marriage. Before the bill passed, opponents also claimed there are areas within Louisiana where citizens are born at their home and never obtain a birth certificate. Vo is being represented by a legal team comprised of lawyers from National Immigration Law Center (NILC) and NOWCRJ.

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