NEW ORLEANS — A judge presided, and the beaming couple embraced teary-eyed well-wishers when it was over. It wasn’t a wedding, but it brought Viet Anh Vo and Heather Pham a bit closer to marriage.
Vo is 32. He’s been a Louisiana resident since he was a baby and a U.S. citizen since he was 8. But he was born in an Indonesian refugee camp after his parents fled Vietnam. His lack of a birth certificate led to his being denied a marriage license under a state law that took effect last year.
U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle of New Orleans blocked enforcement of that law Wednesday. And the legislation’s sponsor later said she’s drafting changes to make sure foreign-born, legal residents can get a waiver to the birth certificate requirement.
Lemelle granted Vo’s request for a preliminary injunction, saying the birth certificate requirement violates the equal protection rights of foreign-born U.S. citizens, as well as the fundamental right to marry.
“It treats him differently from citizens born in the United States or its territories,” the judge said.
Rep. Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs, said it was always her intent to provide for waivers in her original bill, which was meant to deter foreigners from gaining visas and citizenship through sham marriages.
“Unfortunately, sometimes bills don’t come out exactly like you expect as they go through the process,” Hodges said in an emailed statement.
As soon as Thursday, the couple planned to go back to the clerk’s office in their Lafayette hometown to get a marriage license. They may even officially tie the knot over the weekend.
“I just hope others can look at my situation and fight for their rights, too,” Vo said.
Alvaro Huerta, a Los Angeles-based attorney for the National Immigration Law Center, said the ruling enables the couple to immediately obtain a marriage license.
The judge gave no indication from the bench that his injunction applies only to Vo. Lawyers from the law centre and the New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice are waiting to see his written ruling.
“We don’t know if it’s going to extend to others, but we presume so,” Huerta said.
Debbie Hudnall, executive director of the Louisiana Clerks of Court Association, said her office needs to review a written ruling from the judge before it can provide any guidance to court clerks on compliance.
Vo and Pham spent thousands of dollars and invited 350 guests to their wedding before their application for a marriage license was rejected last year. They tried at three separate parishes but were denied each time by court clerks.
They went ahead with the ceremony and exchanged wedding bands.
“The couple, greatly disappointed, proceeded to hold a sacramental marriage in their Catholic Church. This marriage, however, is not legally recognized by Defendants or the State of Louisiana,” his court papers say.
Vo’s lawsuit says he automatically became a U.S. citizen as a child, when his parents became citizens, and he has official U.S. government documents reflecting his birth, refugee status and legal residency. It says he’s working on getting a certificate of citizenship and a U.S. passport, but the state law doesn’t recognize either document.
Vo said neither Indonesia nor Vietnam will certify his birth.