Louisiana Man Sues to Strike Down Unconstitutional State Law Blocking Immigrants from Marrying

NEW ORLEANS, October 18, 2016—A Louisiana man is challenging an unconstitutional state law that denies some immigrants in the state the fundamental right to a legal marriage.

Viet “Victor” Anh Vo filed the lawsuit Vo v. Gee, et al. (PDF) in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana today after he and his partner were prevented from obtaining a marriage license in multiple Louisiana parishes because of a state law that requires any foreign-born person to present a certified birth certificate to obtain a marriage license. He is represented pro bono by the National Immigration Law Center (NILC), the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice (NOWCRJ), and Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher, & Flom LLP.

(Read the Associated Press story and New York Times editorial on the lawsuit.)

Vo, 31, is a U.S. citizen and a resident of Louisiana since he was three months old, but he was never issued an official birth certificate because he was born in a refugee camp in Indonesia after his parents fled Vietnam. His partner, Heather Pham, also is a U.S. citizen.

“I’ve lived in Louisiana nearly all my life and had been dating Heather for over 10 years before we decided to get married,” said Vo, who had a ceremony in the Catholic tradition last year. “I was shocked and disappointed to find out that I couldn’t legally marry her in my home town in Louisiana.”

The legal team has been in contact with multiple other Louisiana residents who have been denied a marriage license under the law and had to take extraordinary steps to obtain marriage licenses in other states at great cost.

“We love who we love,” said Alvaro Huerta, a staff attorney at the NILC. “And the Constitution protects our right to marry the person we love, regardless of where we or they were born. The state of Louisiana is denying this fundamental right to many of its residents by making it impossible for them to get a marriage license. That is both morally wrong and unconstitutional.”

Said Stacy Horth-Neubert, litigation counsel with Skadden, Arps: “Just last year in a case called Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court unequivocally reaffirmed the fundamental right to marry the person you choose. Half a century after Loving v. Virginia, in which the U.S. Supreme Court struck down laws against interracial marriage, no one should be denied this fundamental right, regardless of where they were born and regardless of their citizenship or immigration status.”

Former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal signed Act 436, also known as HB 836, in July 2015. Before it passed, State Sen. Conrad Appel, a Republican, warned that it would unnecessarily burden people like Mr. Vo, and that it was “a mistake” to try to use marriage to regulate immigration. Louisiana lawmakers passed it anyway, and the law went into effect in January 2016. Since then, dozens of people seeking marriage licenses, mostly immigrants and refugees, have been turned away by parish clerks across the state, according to media reports.

Mary Yanik, NOWCRJ Staff Attorney/Liman Legal Fellow, said: “This law panders to mean-spirited and regressive elements within Louisiana politics, instead of reflecting the welcoming spirit of most Louisianans and honoring the state’s history as a birthplace of many of America’s most important civil rights struggles. Gov. John Bel Edwards has an opportunity to stand for a more progressive, equitable, and just Louisiana by rejecting this law.”

“Attacking the right to marriage is part of an attrition strategy aimed at denying immigrants their most basic humanity,” Yanik said. “It’s repugnant, and immigrant families will defeat it by defying it. They will conquer hate by celebrating their love and building family and community.”

The plaintiff Vo is being represented in the case by Karen C. Tumlin, Alvaro M. Huerta, and Nora A. Preciado for NILC; Lisa Gilford, Stacy Horth-Neubert, Douglas Smith, Jeffrey White, Marley Ann Brumme, and Maximillian Hirsch for Skadden, Arps; and Jennifer J. Rosenbaum and Mary Yanik for NOWCRJ.

CONTACTS:
Juan Gastelum, NILC Media Relations Specialist – gastelum@nilc.org, (213) 375-3149
Audrey Stewart, NOWCRJ Managing Director – astewart@nowcrj.org, (504) 655-2092

DOWNLOAD:
Complaint in Vo v. Gee, et al. (PDF)

MEDIA:
Associated press coverage – Oct. 18, 2016
New York Times editorial – Oct. 18, 2016