The Hmong war veterans who celebrated a political victory this spring have returned to Capitol Hill, already hoping to change a citizenship law that's just a few months old.
Call it a lesson in advanced civics for tens of thousands of Hmong refugees in California and Minnesota. As challenging as it was to pass legislation making it easier for Hmong to become naturalized U.S. citizens, the real work may have begun when the White House signing ceremonies ended.
"We have problems in that immigration offices in Boston and parts of California don't know about the law yet," Wangyee Vang, president of the Fresno-based Lao Veterans of America, said Tuesday.
Vang is in Washington this week, marching through the same Capitol Hill corridors he navigated during the multi-year fight for passage of what became the Hmong Veterans Naturalization Act of 2000. The law eases U.S. citizenship requirements for up to 45,000 Hmong veterans, and their widows and spouses.
Ultimately passed as a form of recompense for the Hmong who allied themselves with U.S. forces during the Vietnam War, the legislation was a priority for leaders of the estimated 50,000 Hmong living in the Central Valley and 60,000 in Minnesota.
But the legislation also had its share of controversy, including how much authority would be given the private, dues-funded Lao Veterans of America to approve the veteran bona fides of citizenship applicants. The organization is affiliated with one faction of a sometimes bitterly divided refugee community.
In turn, the law's implementation just now getting underway is inciting some mixed reviews of its own.
"There are some rather disappointing aspects," said Phil Smith, Washington representative for the Lao Veterans of America. "We've had Hmong delegations going into (Immigration and Naturalization Service) offices in Boston and Sacramento, and they're being turned away."
Smith also complained about the new law's apparent limitation on which Hmong war widows are eligible. The law lifts the normal English-language requirement and eases the civics requirement only for veterans, spouses and those widows whose veteran-husbands entered the United States before dying.
"Widows whose husbands died in combat, or in crossing the Mekong River, would not qualify," Smith said.
Kou Yang, a professor at California State University, Stanislaus, said he'd "heard from Minnesota that some Hmong were confused and were not happy with this new law," though he'd also gathered that "the Hmong in Central California seem to be very quiet about it."
The Immigration and Naturalization Service has "not seen any increase in workload in those areas" like California and Minnesota known to have large Hmong populations, spokeswoman Elaine Komis said. Last month, the INS sent out a 13-page memo explaining to field offices how the law is supposed to work.
For instance, the law allows eligible Hmong to answer easier questions on the civics test. Those questions include identifying the first U.S. president, naming the current U.S. president and naming the two major U.S. political parties.
Easing the widower provisions would require what Smith characterized as a "technical correction" to the law signed by President Clinton in May. Because the law is so new and this change would increase citizenship eligibility, and because only about three weeks remain in the congressional session, legislative odds seem long.
The INS offices serving the Central Valley, in Sacramento and Fresno, initially refer all naturalization applications to a regional office in southern California. A backlog of naturalization cases extending one or two years means Hmong veterans and widows applying directly under the new law have a wait of one or two years before their cases get passed back for a hearing in the district offices.
"We won't see them for a long time," said Don Riding, officer in charge of the INS Fresno office.
Riding's office serving the area between Modesto and Bakersfield currently naturalizes about 17,000 people a year. Currently hoping to hire a citizenship adjudication officer who speaks both English and Hmong, Riding said he's already directed his staff not to reject Hmong applicants simply on the basis of lacking English language skills.
(Michael Doyle is a Washington reporter for Scripps-McClatchy Western Service.)