Last year, in a pretty obvious jab at undocumented immigrants, Louisiana overhauled their marriage laws to make it impossible to get married in the state without a birth certificate. As you might expect, the law is also harming legal immigrants, particularly refugees, who don’t have birth certificates and can’t return to their countries of origin to hunt one down.
The Times-Picayune reports that the new law means several couples have been refused marriage licenses, including at least six to eight per month in Orleans Parish alone since the law took effect. The Washington Post spoke to one of those couples, Out Xanamane, who was born in Laos, and his partner Marilyn Cheng. The two were married in a Buddhist ceremony in 1997 and have four children; they had never needed an official, state-recognized marriage license until he was diagnosed with liver cancer.
The Washington Post explains that Cheng’s employer, from whom the family was getting their health insurance, suddenly demanded a marriage license after getting the bills for his cancer treatments. The couple went to the courthouse in New Iberia with his green card and refugee documents, only to be told that wasn’t good enough.
That’s because the new law, which you can read in full here, requires not just a birth certificate, but a translation if the document isn’t in English. The only way around that is to get a waiver from a judge, a process that could take months, or to submit “a letter signed by the proper registration authority of the state, territory, or country of the place of birth,” stating that the birth certificate can’t be located.
None of that is possible for a refugee, or indeed many immigrants from countries with lackluster infrastructure or record-keeping. Xanamane says he was told he had to go back to Laos. He told the Post: “They told me I have to go back to Laos and get my birth certificate. But there isn’t any birth certificate there, either.” He’s been in Louisiana since 1986 and has never returned to the country; his family spent time in refugee camps in the Philippines and Thailand before getting here.
Xanamane and Cheng ended up having to drive seven hours across the state line to Alabama to get married, surely not an easy trip with four children in tow, and unpleasantly reminiscent of women having to make arduous trips for abortion care. They were finally legally married on the 19th anniversary of their Buddhist ceremony.
Rep. Valarie Hodges, who sponsored the bill last year, insisted that it was to prevent marriage fraud, the Times-Picayune reports. But others who supported the bill weren’t shy about saying that it would hurt immigrants:
Hodges, a Republican, told the House Civil Law committee that she was bringing the bill because one of her friends had accidentally married a man who was also married to someone else. The woman didn’t find out her husband had another wife in Texas for three years and Hodges was hoping to prevent that situation in the future, she told a House committee reviewing the bill.
Supporters of the legislation didn’t necessarily shy away from the impact the bill might have on some immigrants. Gene Mills, who leads the conservative 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.”
This sounds a lot like when Texas officials refused birth certificates to children of Mexican immigrants, even though those children were legally born in the United States. It sounds like voter ID laws. It sounds, in other words, like nitpicking bureaucracy solely designed to make immigrants’ lives harder, and make them feel unwelcome and burdened and unable to form legal ties in their communities. But that, we guess, is exactly the point.