WASHINGTON, D.C. -- After a 10-year lobbying effort and a tumultuous ride through Congress, a bill that will help ease the citizenship process for thousands of Hmong veterans and their spouses was signed into law Friday by President Clinton.
The legislation is a tribute to the veterans' service between Feb. 28, 1961, and Sept. 18, 1973, in the secret CIA-led campaign in Laos during the Vietnam War. It waives normal English-language requirements and eases civics tests for as many as 45,000 Hmong veterans and their spouses.
Philip Smith, director of the Lao Veterans of America Inc., a group in Fresno, Calif., that pushed hard for the legislation, said he was particularly pleased that Clinton signed the bill before Memorial Day. Smith said members of his organization will begin applying for citizenship immediately. The bill does not guarantee citizenship.
It was considered necessary to eliminate the language requirement to accommodate the aging veterans whose culture did not have a written language until this century.
Passage of the legislation also was seen as a tribute to the legacy of its sponsor, retiring Rep. Bruce Vento, D-Minn., who is leaving office at the end of this term because he has a rare form of lung cancer caused by asbestos.
Vento's St. Paul district is home to the nation's largest concentration of Hmong, 70,000 of whom live in Minnesota. Hmong groups estimate the legislation could affect as many as one-third of the Hmong population in Minnesota and California's Central Valley, which is home to more than 50,000 Hmong -- the second-largest concentration in the United States.
In the 1960s and '70s, the CIA and U.S. Special Forces recruited thousands of Hmong to fight Communist forces in Indochina. During that campaign, the Hmong population suffered huge casualties. After Laos fell to the Communist Pathet Lao forces in 1975, thousands of Hmong were moved to refugee camps in Thailand and ultimately were brought to the United States.