New Iberia, La.
For an illustration of how cruel the country’s latest wave of nativism has grown, look to Louisiana.
Here, a little-noticed new state law has effectively made it illegal for thousands of refugees to get married.
It all started last year. Having lost the fight over gay marriage, the state’s religious right decided that the sacred institution of wedlock was once again under attack — this time, by devious immigrants. Undocumented workers and even terrorists had newly discovered they could exploit Louisiana’s marriage laws to gain citizenship, legislators claimed, leading to a supposed epidemic of “marriage fraud.”
The response? Make it more difficult for immigrants to get married, of course.
So, as of this year, any foreign-born person wanting to get married in Louisiana must produce both an unexpired visa (even though a federal court has ruled that marriage licenses cannot be denied based on immigration status), as well as, somewhat inexplicably, a birth certificate.
No birth certificate, no marriage, no excuses.
The law has indeed placed marriage off-limits to immigrants in the country illegally, as intended. But it’s hurt plenty of legal immigrants, too. Louisiana is home to thousands of refugees, predominantly Vietnamese and Laotians who received asylum in the 1970s and 1980s after fleeing war and communism in their homelands.
Today these Louisianans often have green cards and even U.S. citizenship, but no access to their original birth documents, if such documents even exist.
The law received little attention when it went into effect in January. Which means people such as Out Xanamane often learn about it only when they get turned away at the courthouse.
Xanamane was born in a village near Savannakhet, Laos, in 1975, the year the country fell to communism. Born at home, he never received a birth certificate.
He remembers little of his early childhood, except that there were bombs and land mines everywhere. In the decade before his birth, the U.S. military dropped 2 million tons of explosives on the tiny nation, making the country one of the most heavily bombed per capita in history.
Xanamane’s family arrived in Louisiana in 1986, after spending time in refugee camps in Thailand and the Philippines. He has lived in the United States ever since and is now a U.S. permanent resident in the process of applying for citizenship.
It wasn’t until he got sick this summer that his lack of birth certificate was ever an issue.
In July, he was diagnosed with liver cancer, the same illness that claimed his brother’s life two years ago. The diagnosis meant a lot of changes for his family, the most pressing of which was he really, really needed the state to recognize his marriage.
Xanamane and his significant other, U.S.-born citizen Marilyn Cheng, were married in a Buddhist temple in 1997. But like many in the local Laotian community, they never sought an official marriage license, and never felt they needed to. They have called each other “husband” and “wife” for two decades, have four children and assumed they probably had a common-law marriage at the very least.
They didn’t; Louisiana doesn’t recognize common-law marriage.
The couple discovered this when Cheng’s employer, under whose health-insurance plan Xanamane was covered for the past two years, abruptly asked for a copy of their marriage license after bills for his cancer treatments came in. Suddenly all the marriage-related legal protections they’d taken for granted — health coverage, hospital visitation rights, Social Security survivor benefits — vanished.
Within days they went to the courthouse, armed with Xanamane’s green card, refugee documents and driver’s license. Twice they were turned away.
“They told me I have to go back to Laos and get my birth certificate,” said Xanamane, who has never returned to his country of birth. “But there isn’t any birth certificate there, either.”
They contacted friends, family, lawyers, public officials, judges, other parishes in the state. No one could help.
Out of options, and with Xanamane’s access to medical care hanging in the balance, the couple opted for a last-minute destination wedding in a more enlightened state: Alabama. They packed their kids and Xanamane’s sister into the car and drove seven hours to Montgomery, a jurisdiction that happily took appointments for courthouse marriage ceremonies and accepted green cards as proof of identity.
On Aug. 8, 2016 — the 19th anniversary of their Buddhist marriage ceremony — Xanamane and Cheng were legally declared husband and wife. Then they turned around and drove seven hours home.
It’s not clear whether the champions of the Louisiana law intended to make marriage less accessible to people like Xanamane, or if they’re merely indifferent to an unintended consequence of their anti-immigrant reflexes. The organization that legislators told me lobbied for the bill, the Louisiana Family Forum, did not return my calls; the state representative who introduced the law, Valarie Hodges, declined an interview request.
All we know is that both claim to be a voice for “traditional families” — a category that, in 2016, apparently no longer includes immigrants.