Some Immigrants Denied Marriage Licences

Some Immigrants Denied Marriage Licenses

Associated Press Writer
July 12, 2007, 7:53 PM EDT

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A federal law that requires people to supply their Social Security number when applying for a marriage license has forced thousands of couples around the country, particularly illegal immigrants, to put their wedding plans on hold.

The law has been on the books for about a decade and was intended to make it easier to collect child support payments. But in some places it has prevented even legal immigrants and some American citizens from getting married.

Some couples are traveling to other states or other counties willing to issue them marriage licenses.

Jonadad Luque, a Honduran immigrant legally in the U.S., wants to marry his girlfriend, with whom he has two children, ages 1 and 5. But the county clerk in Nashville would not issue them a license because his girlfriend is in the country illegally and does not have a Social Security number.

“I have a Social Security number, a driver's license and permission to work,” Luque said in Spanish. “We want to get married, but we'll have to wait until they change the law.”

John Arriola, the county clerk in Nashville, said he would like to see the law changed, but for now he has to obey it.

Federal law requires states to record the Social Security numbers of all applicants for a professional license, driver's license, recreational license or marriage license. And Social Security numbers are not available to those who are in this country illegally or do not have permission to work.

But whether and how the law is enforced varies dramatically from state to state, and even from county to county, with some authorities interpreting the law as saying that only those people who already have Social Security numbers need to supply them.

Illegal immigrants are encountering less trouble getting married in places that have established immigrant communities. In Texas and New York City, for instance, officials ask for Social Security numbers but do not require them.

The Los Angeles County registrar's office says it does not require any proof of residency or citizenship status. And in North Carolina, people without Social Security numbers can present an affidavit stating they are ineligible for one.

The laws are often more strict in states where large immigrant populations are a recent phenomenon. In Tennessee and Alabama, for example, some county clerks are using the law to prevent illegal immigrants from getting marriage licenses.

Immigration attorneys say the law was not designed to keep people from getting married.

“There's a fundamental U.S. constitutional right to marry,” said Charles Baesler, an immigration lawyer in Kentucky and chairman of the American Immigration Lawyers Association's Southeast chapter.

A federal judge in Pennsylvania ruled last month that a county official could not require a man to prove he was legally in the country before issuing a marriage license to him and his American fiancee.

The Rev. Joseph Breen of Nashville's St. Edward Catholic Church, which has a large Hispanic congregation, said he became concerned about the number of couples in his parish, some with children, who had been unable to marry legally.

So the church drove about 20 couples across the state line to Kentucky for licenses and a civil wedding ceremony before bringing them back to Nashville for a church wedding.

“We call ourselves a Christian country, but you've got to go to Georgia or Kentucky in order to get married,” Breen said. “We're supposed to be pro-family.”

The Rev. Neil Pezzulo, a Roman Catholic priest in rural Arkansas' Scott County, said immigrant couples keep coming in with marriage licenses issued in a neighboring county with a more liberal policy.

Scott County Clerk Sandy Staggs said state law requires a Social Security number, but for people who don't have one, her office also accepts a birth certificate, translated into English, and a photo ID.

As for how the policy could differ from one county to the next, Pezzulo said: “My suspicion is it has to do more with religious and political agendas than an understanding of the law.”