WASHINGTON -- President Clinton has signed legislation that provides expedited citizenship eligibility for widows of Laotians who died in the Vietnam War fighting on the side of the United States.
"Many of these widows and their families sacrificed a great deal as their spouses fought in support of the U.S. military during the conflict in Southeast Asia," Clinton said in a statement.
"Many have had to struggle to make a new life in this country and to raise their families, and despite language and cultural barriers, they have made significant contributions to our nation," Clinton said. "This legislation will help ensure that they become full-fledged citizens in our society."
The legislation was necessary because the Immigration and Naturalization Service interpreted the Hmong Veterans' Naturalization Act of 2000 enacted in May as only applying to Laotian veterans and their surviving spouses who are living in the United States as refugees.
The clarification specifies that refugees whose husbands died in battle as part of the Central Intelligence Agency's secret army between 1961 and 1978 will now receive the same treatment.
Hmong refugees streamed out of Communist-controlled Laos and into Thailand in 1975 at the end of the Vietnam War because many of their men had fought alongside U.S. servicemen secretly recruited by the CIA in an effort to thwart North Vietnamese forces
Over the last 24 years, a couple of hundred thousand Hmong have resettled in the United States, including thousands in Wisconsin communities such as Appleton, Green Bay and Wausau.
"I think the Hmong-American community is becoming active politically and participating in the American political system," said Philip Smith, Washington director of the Lao Veterans of America. "We had several busloads of widows travel to Washington from Wisconsin and Minnesota on September 7 to go door-to-door in the House and in the Senate. They were also here October 18 and 19 in large numbers."
Smith credited Reps. George Radanovich, R-Calif., and the late Bruce Vento, D-Minn., and Sens. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., Russ Feingold, D-Wis., and Herb Kohl, D-Wis., for pushing the legislation.
Up to 45,000 veterans and their spouses have 18 months to apply to the INS for citizenship under an expedited process that waives the English-language requirement and eases the civics requirement.
"They won't be able to vote in this election, but in 2002 they will be," said Smith.