Four months after passing legislation making it easier for America's Laotian Vietnam War allies to become U.S. citizens, the House on Monday extended those rights to widows whose husbands never made it to the United States.
The original legislation covered veterans and their spouses and widows, but an apparent oversight left out widows whose husbands died before becoming to the United States. The House bill seeks to correct that.
Most of those affected are Hmong, an ethnic group from the highlands of Laos, who were recruited by the CIA. The law waives the English-language requirement to become a citizen; supporters say the Hmong have found it difficult to learn English because their language did not have a written form until recently.
"I think the Hmong widows whose husbands died in Southeast Asia on behalf of the United States fully deserve to benefit from this legislation," said Philip Smith, Washington director of the Lao Veterans of America.
Smith said that he and other backers of the bill didn't notice that the original legislation didn't cover these widows. It was only discovered when the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which is responsible for carrying out the law, ruled that the legislative language didn't include them.
"That was so shocking to everyone who worked on this, particularly the widows," he said, noting they had lobbied for passage of the original bill, which took 10 years to pass. "This is the group of widows who is perhaps most deserving - their husbands paid the ultimate price."
The new bill passed the House unanimously on Monday. Similar legislation, sponsored by Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., is expected to be voted on in the Senate this week.
Smith said that almost 5,000 widows would benefit from the revised legislation.