The Washington Post: “Louisiana isn’t letting immigrants get married”

by Joseph McKeown

A new state law passed earlier this year in Louisiana has effectively made it illegal for thousands of immigrants to get married. Last year, after losing the fight over the legalization of gay marriage, legislators in Louisiana claimed undocumented workers—and even terrorists—had discovered they could exploit Louisiana’s marriage laws to gain citizenship, leading to a so-called epidemic of “marriage fraud.” In response, legislators passed a law stating that any foreign-born person wanting to get married in Louisiana must produce both a birth certificate and an unexpired visa (although a federal court ruled that marriage licenses cannot be denied based on immigration status).

The law has effectively prevented undocumented immigrants as well as many legal immigrants from marrying in the state. Louisiana is home to thousands of refugees, predominantly Vietnamese and Laotians who received asylum in the 1970s and 1980s after escaping war and communism, and even though these Louisianans often have Green Cards and even US citizenship, many have no access to their original birth documents. Xanamane, a US permanent resident in the process of applying for citizenship who was born in a village near Savannakhet, Laos, in 1975, the year the country fell to communism, never received a birth certificate. Although Xanamane and his partner, US-born citizen Marilyn Cheng, were married in a Buddhist temple in 1997, like many in the local Laotian community, they never obtained an official marriage license. When Xanamane was diagnosed with cancer this summer and was asked to provide evidence of his marriage, they attempted to get married in Louisiana and were twice turned away, even though they presented Xanamane’s Green Card, refugee documents, and driver’s license, “They told me I have to go back to Laos and get my birth certificate,” Xanamane tells the Washington Post. “But there isn’t any birth certificate there, either.” The couple opted for a last-minute courthouse wedding in Montgomery, Alabama, a seven-hour drive away, which takes appointments for courthouse marriage ceremonies and accepts Green Cards as proof of identity.  

Since the law went into effect in January this year, six to eight couples each month have been turned down for a marriage license in Orleans Parish, the Times-Picayune reports, demonstrating how the law has affected marriage applicants. “My parents don't have birth certificates. They came over as refugees,” Minh Thanh Nguyen, executive director of the Vietnamese Young Leaders of New Orleans, which works with immigrant communities, tells the Times-Picayune. “They are born in rural areas and, I mean, who is going to produce a birth certificate for you? That is just a reality of immigrant communities. They come from rural areas…It's not as formal as the United States."

Only individuals born in the US or a US territory can apply to a judge for a waiver for the birth certificate requirement, but that is not an option for foreign-born applicants. "I think it is going to get worse and worse," State Senator Conrad Appel, who fought the bill’s restriction on immigrants, tells the Times-Picayune. "If people want to get married, I want them to get married."

The legislation's sponsor, Representative Valarie Hodges, said the law’s purpose is to prevent marriage fraud. Hodges told the House Civil Law committee that she introduced the bill because “one of her friends had accidentally married a man who was also married to someone else.” But other supporters of the legislation were clear what impact it would have on immigrants. Gene Mills, the leader of the Louisiana Family Forum organization, told a committee he backed the legislation because it "prevents persons who are in the United States illegally from marrying in Louisiana."  

"If you are trying to use marriage as an immigration (regulation) tool, I think that's a mistake," Appel told his fellow Senators before they voted on the legislation last year. There are now discussions about introducing a bill to allow legal immigrants to get a marriage license without a birth certificate, but the earliest this would happen is in the next legislative session starting in April 2017. Fernando Lopez, a community organizer at the New Orleans Center for Racial Justice, says the organization is filing a lawsuit on behalf of those denied marriage licenses.