House bill aims to allow marriages for people without birth certificates

By Dee Thompson | May 21, 2017

BATON ROUGE — A new bill in the House would pave the way for Louisiana citizens to obtain a marriage license without a birth certificate, a move applauded by a Vietnamese-American man recently denied the right to marry.

House Bill 270, sponsored by Rep. Valarie Hodges (R-Denham Springs) would allow judges to waive the birth-certificate requirement. On March 22, U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle ruled in favor of Viet Anh Vo, an American citizen who was born in a refugee camp in Indonesia and is unable to produce a birth certificate. Judge Lemelle said the requirement of a birth certificate violated foreign-born US citizens’ right to equal protection.

In 2016, Vo filed suit against Rebekah E. Gee, Secretary of the Department of Health; Devin George, State Registrar; Michael Thibodeaux, Iberia Parish Clerk; Diane Meaux Broussard, Vermilion Parish Clerk; and Louis J. Perret, Lafayette Parish Clerk.

The complaint states, in part, that Louisiana law “prevents certain individuals—principally marriage license applicants born outside of the United States and its territories and those who seek to marry them—from exercising their fundamental right to marry the person of their choosing. It does so by imposing additional burdens on those born outside of the United States and their intended spouses, making it harder, and in some cases impossible, to obtain a marriage license.”

Alvaro M. Huerta is a staff attorney at the National Immigration Law Center and represents Vo. He told the Louisiana Record, “Our mission is to defend and advance the rights of low-income immigrants. So when we heard that Louisiana had passed this bill [Act Number 436] in 2015, we knew right away it would have an effect on immigrant populations, so we were ready to prepare a challenge, especially once we found our plaintiff, who had difficulties because of the law. He was effectively barred from getting married in the state.”

Many immigrants have difficulty obtaining birth certificates, even those who were not born in refugee camps like Vo. 

“We’re not sure what the numbers are, but a lot of refugees have a hard time getting access to their documents generally, especially if they are fleeing persecution by their government," Huerta said. "They often flee without documents.”

An American citizen since the age of 8, Vo faced similar issues to those encountered by other refugees. 

“In our plaintiff’s case, his parents fled from Vietnam, and he was born in an Indonesian refugee camp," Huerta said. "There was no record of his birth made in that camp. He has attempted to get documents, to no avail.”

“There are also U.S. citizens who don’t have access to birth certificates for a multitude of reasons" Huerta added. "However, this law disproportionately affects immigrants."

Vo is still not legally married, although he was allowed to marry in the Roman Catholic Church. The priest made an exception, since Vo was only two weeks away from the planned date of the ceremony.

The National Immigration Law Center is working with the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice on the Vo matter. Vo is not seeking monetary damages in his lawsuit, only the right to marry legally.

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