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Anti-immigrant Louisiana marriage law struck down by federal court

Catherine Rampell on

Love wins. Even for immigrants.

On Tuesday, a federal district court struck down a Louisiana state law denying marriage equality to foreign-born residents. The law had been backed by the religious right, the same crowd that had earlier fought to deny marriage equality to same-sex couples.

The legislation, which I first wrote about last October, required anyone wishing to get hitched to produce a birth certificate as well as an unexpired passport or visa before receiving a marriage license. People born in the United States were allowed to get a waiver from a judge if for some reason they didn't have a birth certificate; people born abroad were given no such option.

Ostensibly the objective was to prevent bigamy and other types of "marriage fraud." And also, somehow, to thwart crafty terrorists.

"We don't want terrorists obtaining green cards and citizenship through marriage and I believe my constituents would agree with me," the legislation's sponsor, Republican state Rep. Valarie Hodges, told a local radio station when the law went into effect in January 2016.

Whatever the law's purported justification, one vulnerable population was especially hurt by it: refugees.

Louisiana has a large population of refugees who fled Laos and Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Despite being here legally -- and in many cases, having ultimately received U.S. citizenship -- these Louisianans often were never issued birth certificates.

This affected couples such as Laotian-born refugee Out Xanamane and his longtime partner, U.S.-born Marilyn Cheng. Xanamane had been born at home in a village near Savannakhet, Laos, in 1975, in the year the country fell to communism. He never received a birth certificate.

The couple had undergone a Buddhist religious marriage ceremony in 1997 -- and subsequently had four kids -- but never filed paperwork with the state. After Xanamane was diagnosed with liver cancer in 2016, he desperately needed a legally recognized marriage certificate to qualify for Cheng's employer-sponsored health insurance plan.

Xanamane had multiple forms of identification, including a green card and state-issued driver's license, but the couple was turned away by multiple parish clerks because he could not produce a birth certificate.

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