Twin Cities groups that help immigrants say many Hmong refugees are confused about a new law that makes it easier for Southeast Asians who fought alongside American forces during the Vietnam War to become U.S. citizens.
Many of the applicants have found that they are ineligible or that the requirements remain stiffer than they were led to believe.
"What the bill does not do is give carte blanche citizenship," attorney John Keller of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota said Wednesday at a meeting that brought Hmong residents together with a panel of congressional representatives, immigration officials and immigrant advocates.
Keller said that he told six immigrants from Southeast Asia last week that even though they had fought as U.S. allies, they did not qualify for citizenship because they had resettled in France and Canada after the war and were in this country illegally. They had overstayed their tourist visas.
Members of the Hmong community who attended the hearing said people are getting wrong information about who is eligible. One man said he heard all he had to do was to send in an application with a $25 fee and wait at home for his citizenship documents.
Not so, explained INS officials.
Bill Adams of the Immigration and Naturalization Service office in Bloomington said the law affects 45,000 Hmong veterans and others who served between Feb. 28, 1961, and Sept. 18, 1978, and came to this country as refugees.
All other normal requirements for citizenship apply, including that they be permanent residents and of good moral character. Proof of war service, such as affidavits from superiors or special guerrilla commanders, is required.
Applicants seeking citizenship under the Hmong Veterans Naturalization Act still must take a test to prove their knowledge of American history and civics. But they won't have to speak or write English; the test will be condensed, and they will be allowed to bring an interpreter.
Adams said people who lack proper documentation of their war service can request evidence that may exist in their personal INS files.
He said they can submit the proof with the application, or when they are called for an interview a few months later. The deadline to apply is Nov. 26, 2001; the application fee is $250, which can be waived for low-income applicants.
Sen. Paul Wellstone said the Hmong community is happy that its war efforts are being recognized, but "not everybody is going to be covered. There's still some criteria that has to met."
Among those excluded are women whose husbands died in the war.
And that makes Mai Moua angry.
She told panelists that the law is unfair because it doesn't cover her mother, Yer Moua. "My family is being punished because my father died," she said. After the meeting, she added: "If anyone needs help it's widows and their kids, because they don't have a male figure in their lives."
Barbara Johnson, an aide to St. Paul's U.S. Rep. Bruce Vento, who represents Minnesota's largest concentration of Hmong residents and championed the Hmong veteran cause for a decade, said the law is a compromise, covering only women who entered the country with husbands who were qualified war veterans. "It had to be extremely narrow," she told Moua. "It doesn't speak to a lot of the pain that folks feel."
More information: The Hmong Veterans Naturalization Act
The following St. Paul organizations offer assistance to potential citizenship applicants under
a new law that benefits Hmong and other refugees who fought in the Vietnam War as U.S. allies. Applicants can also call the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service directly.
- Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, also known as Oficina Legal, 179 E. Robie St. 651-291-0110.
- Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services, 46 E. 4th St., 651-222-5863.
- Lao Family Community of Minnesota, 320 University Av. W., 651-221-0069.
- Immigration and Naturalization Service: 1-800-375-5283.