Judge Blocks Law That Kept Foreign-Born Citizen from Marrying

NEW ORLEANS (CN) – A federal court victory this week means a U.S. citizen who was born abroad will be able to legally marry his fiancée.

A state law that went into effect last year in Louisiana kept Viet “Victor” Anh Vo from being able to marry Heather Pham, his U.S. born fiancée.

The same law, enacted in January 2016, also kept other immigrants in the state from legally marrying, because it restricts marriage to those who are possession of their birth certificate.

U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle granted Vo’s request for preliminary injunction of the law Wednesday, to hugs and tears from the overjoyed couple.

“It treats him differently from citizens born in the United States or its territories,” Lemelle said from the bench during the hearing.

Vo’s lawsuit, filed last fall, called the law, Act 436, which was signed into being in July 2015, “an unlawful state attempt to usurp federal immigration law.”

Vo was born in an Indonesian refugee camp after his Vietnamese national parents fled Vietnam. He is now a U.S. citizen, and has been since he was a young child, but he is not in possession of a birth certificate.

Act 436 bars those without birth certificates from marrying, Vo’s lawsuit said. As such, the act places additional burdens on foreign-born applicants and their spouses, making it difficult, if not impossible, to obtain marriage certificates.

Vo’s birth has never been officially recognized by Vietnamese or Indonesian authorities, and he was never issued a birth certificate.

He has lived in Louisiana since he was three months old, and has been a U.S. citizen since he was eight.

In 2016, when Vo and his fiancée decided to tie the knot, they went to multiple Louisiana parish clerks and were denied a marriage license at all of them because Vo does not have a valid birth certificate, a valid and unexpired passport, or an unexpired visa – the documents required under the act.

“Vo meets all other requirements for obtaining a marriage license from the State of Louisiana, and would have been eligible for a marriage license but for his inability to provide the documents newly required by state law,” his lawsuit said.

“The only impediments to Mr. Vo’s ability to obtain a marriage license are the barriers Act 436 imposes on him because he was born outside of the United States,” it continues.

Former Louisiana Gov. Piyush “Bobby” Jindal, who was born in Louisiana to an immigrant Indian-national father, signed Act 436 into existence in July 2015 as a way to tighten the rules for immigration.

Before Act 436 went into effect, the rules for obtaining a marriage license were much less stringent.

To apply for a marriage license in Orleans Parish prior to the act going into effect, for instance, the paperwork needed to be filled out by just one party, who could show identification for the other party, and the other person did not even need to be present.

Rep. Valerie Hodges, R – Denham Springs, who pushed the law through the legislature, said in an emailed news release that she plans to amend the act.

She said she meant the act to deter foreigners from entering sham marriages for citizenship.

Hodges said she plans to amend the bill to include a process by which U.S.-born foreign nationals can get a letter from a judge allowing them to obtain a marriage license if they are not in possession of a birth certificate.

She said in the statement that is always what she had planned for the bill.

“Unfortunately, sometimes bills don’t come out exactly as you expect as they go through the process,” Hodges said.

Vo, 32, said he planned to take his fiancée to dinner, and maybe even propose again to her.

“I just hope others can look at my situated and fight for their rights, too,” he told the AP.

Vo’s lawsuit said he automatically became a U.S. citizen when he was two months old and his parents became citizens, and he has official U.S. documents that show he was born, has refugee status and holds citizenship, but that document doesn’t apply under the act, he said.

State and parish lawyers said before the hearing that Vo’s lawsuit doesn’t specify whether he wants the judge to grant him relief from the law. As such, they said they were asking Judge Lemelle to apply the ruling only to Vo.

Although Lemelle gave no indication from the bench whether he expected his ruling to apply to other foreign born nationals who are not in possession on a birth certificate, Vo’s lawyers told the Associated Press it is likely he will extend his ruling to others. They said they will wait for the written ruling to see.

“We don’t know if it’s going to extend to others, but we presume so,” said Alvaro Huerta, an attorney at the Los Angeles-based National Immigration Law Center.

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