Under the watchful eye of Gen. Vang Pao, who stares from a giant oil portrait hanging high above a stage, Hmong veterans and their wives stream daily into a St. Paul auditorium to take the first step toward U.S. citizenship.
Armed with green cards, Social Security numbers and much hope, the mostly elderly men and women filling out forms are taking advantage of a new law that recognizes the contributions of Southeast Asians in the Vietnam War by easing the citizenship process for up to 45,000 veterans nationwide.
"To them, it is important to become American citizens before they die," said Cherzong Vang, who oversees the Lao Veterans of America's temporary office. "It is important that what they did to help this country during the war in Laos is recognized. They are very happy."
But along with the excitement over the Hmong Veterans Naturalization Act that Congress approved in late May, confusion is rampant. And some say the role played by Vang's group as the sole Hmong organization administering the program locally is adding to the misunderstanding. For instance:
- Hmong and members of other Laotian ethnic groups who fought in the war resettled in other countries and later came to the United States on tourist visas are applying for the benefit even though they don't qualify.
- Widows of veterans who died in battle are trying to use a law that doesn't cover them.
- Many erroneously believe that proof of war service from the Lao Veterans group automatically guarantees them U.S. citizenship.
The biggest fear, immigrant advocates say, is that those ineligible for citizenship may be setting themselves up for possible deportation.
"It could end in some tragic results for people," said John Keller, an attorney with the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota. "In the least problematic situation, they lose their money and they aren't ready when their [naturalization] interview comes. In the worst scenario, they may not be eligible for citizenship and are subject to deportation."
A reward for service
During the Vietnam War, Hmong soldiers as young as 10 were covertly recruited by the CIA to fight Communists running supplies through the mountains of Laos. The Lao Veterans group puts Hmong casualties at more than 35,000, although there are no official figures.
Under the new naturalization law, Hmong veterans who are permanent U.S. residents and can prove they fought with secret U.S. forces against the Communists in Laos from 1961 to 1978 will be allowed to take the citizenship exam in their own language rather than in English.
But they still must meet other typical citizenship requirements, including those toughened by immigration laws passed in 1996. For example, would-be citizens can be deported if convicted of gross misdemeanors, rather than more serious aggravated felonies as in the past.
Bill Adams, of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) in the district office in Bloomington, emphasized that proof of war service exempts veterans only from the English requirement: "If someone has a disqualifying criminal history, we would put them into removal proceedings."
He said applicants with serious offenses could be held indefinitely in jail because the United States does not deport refugees to Communist Laos.
But "there are diplomatic relations with Laos, and there are ongoing negotiations at this very moment discussing the return of deportable aliens to Laos," said Chuck Arendale, assistant INS district director for deportations. He added that there's also a possibility that a third country would accept deportees.
Xia Cheng Vang, a 79-year-old veteran who stopped in at the Lao Veterans office Thursday, said he didn't believe he would have any legal problems. But after a volunteer helped him fill out forms for nearly two hours, Vang was still unaware that he would have to take the U.S. citizenship exam _ albeit with an interpreter's help _ to qualify for the benefit.
Vang, who doesn't speak or write English, said through his daughter, Yer Vang, 26, that he has failed the test twice in previous attempts.
Cherzong Vang, president of the local chapter of Lao Veterans, said his group aims to get as many people as possible certified as veterans so they can apply for citizenship. But he said volunteers are in short supply, and with no legal advisers on site, some applicants may not be getting all the information they need in a single visit.
Vang said that in the two weeks since his office opened, volunteers have accepted about 1,100 applications which will be sent to an INS office for processing. "The ones that may have legal problems, we tell them to wait," he said, adding that he soon hopes to have legal assistants screening applications to quickly catch potential obstacles.
The priority is to help the 6,000 local members of the Lao Veterans, Vang said, but other veterans who join the group for $100 also can get assistance. The application fee is $250, but the INS will waive it for low-income people.
Although other Hmong community leaders give credit to the California-based Lao Veterans for lobbying that helped get the legislation passed, they also say the group's allegiance to Gen. Pao may keep thousands of eligible veterans from applying for U.S. citizenship.
Pao, who led a CIA-backed army of more than 30,000 during a clandestine campaign in Laos, is widely recognized as the unofficial leader of the Lao Veterans. His former soldiers remain uncompromisingly loyal to him, but he also has many critics.
A proposal to allow the Lao Veterans to determine the status of Southeast Asian veterans stirred much controversy and failed to make it into the final legislation. But in Minnesota, which now has the largest U.S. concentration of Hmong, about 60,000, the Lao Veterans is the only Hmong organization assisting veterans seeking citizenship.
"There's a feeling in the Hmong community that people have to go through the Lao Veterans of America to qualify," said Lee Pao Xiong, who serves on various advocacy organizations for Southeast Asians. That's not true, he said.
"What I'd like to see is other groups step up to the plate as options to the Lao Veterans," he said. "We have a limited amount of time for this legislation, we can't afford to let politics keep veterans from obtaining this benefit."
But other prominent groups such as the Minnesota chapter of the Lao Hmong American Coalition, a veterans organization, and the Hmong American Partnership so far have not shown much interest in becoming involved.
The Immigrant Law Center, which has counseled several veterans who don't qualify for citizenship, is in the midst of hiring a paralegal fluent in Hmong and English to work exclusively with Southeast Asian veterans. It also is spearheading plans to train social service workers and those who teach citizenship classes to assist veterans. INS officials said they will attend informational meetings to discuss the law as needed.
Michael Yang, director of the Immigration Task Force in Minneapolis, said the Hmong community needs to set aside politics to ensure that all qualifying veterans take advantage of the law.
"We really need to minimize these frictions because of political views in our community in order to support each other in this legislation," Yang said. "It's way past time that this country recognized the contributions that Hmong people made to democratic values, and to saving American lives in Southeast Asia. Now it's up to us to help these veterans get what they rightfully deserve." More information: The Hmong Veterans Naturalization Act.
- Recognizes achievements of Hmong and other refugees from Laos who fought in the Vietnam War from Feb. 28, 1961, to Sept. 18, 1978.
- Allows veterans and their wives (or widows whose veteran husbands died after entering the United States) to use an interpreter when taking a shorter version of the U.S. citizenship exam.
- Limits the number of qualified people who can become citizens to 45,000.
- Establishes deadline for applications of Nov. 26, 2001.
- A training session for refugee advocates will be held Monday from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. at the Neighborhood House, 179 E. Robie St., St. Paul.
Where to get help
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 also can call the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service at 1-800-375-5283.
- Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, also known as Oficina Legal, 179 E. Robie St., St. Paul, 651-291-0110.
- Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services, 46 E. 4th St., St. Paul, 651-222-5863.
- Lao Family Community of Minnesota, 320 University Av. W., St. Paul, 651-221-0069.