For years, Youa Yang and many of her widowed friends battled for a bill that would make it easier for Hmong refugees who had fought with U.S. forces during the Vietnam War to become U.S. citizens. But when it became law earlier this year, the women whose husbands had died fighting with the Americans in Southeast Asia were left out.
Yang, who is in her 70s, said that she and her friends couldn't help but feel cheated.
On Thursday night, the Senate moved to redress that oversight by voting unanimously to approve a measure allowing the war widows to take the citizenship exam in their language rather than in English.
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; the Hmong have found it difficult to learn English because their language did not have a written form until recently.
The bill, which had already passed the House, now goes to President Clinton, who is expected to sign it into law.
"We're not going to have any problem at all," said Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., who called the legislation a tribute to Rep. Bruce Vento, who died of cancer last week in St. Paul.
"Hmong soldiers died at 10 times the rate of American soldiers during the Vietnam War," Wellstone said. "It is only appropriate that we honor their service . . . by giving their widows the tools to become citizens of the country for which their husbands died."
The legislation was "the right thing to do," Yang said as she sat surrounded by friends at the Elder Connections Program, a Minneapolis drop-in center where elderly Hmong socialize and seek various services. "The widows had to work very hard to keep our children alive after our husbands died; we also deserve to be recognized."
The previous law, the Hmong Veterans Naturalization Act, which Clinton signed on May 26, covered 45,000 Laotians who arrived in the United States. It stipulates that the veterans must be permanent residents and be able to prove that they fought with U.S. forces against the Communists in Laos between 1961 and 1978. The law also benefits veterans' wives, but not those whose husbands died before they entered the United States.
In Minnesota, many of the veterans who are affected are among the state's estimated 60,000 Hmong. The deadline to apply is Nov. 26, 2001.
Applicants must pay a $250 fee and take a condensed test to prove their knowledge of U.S. history and civics. But they will be allowed to bring an interpreter.
For 80-year-old Mai Xiong, who does not speak English, the requirements still seem tough. But, she said, they pale in comparison to the obstacles that she encountered after her husband was killed in the war in 1970, leaving her to raise six children on her own.
"My heart was so troubled," Xiong said. "I felt so lost after my husband died. I didn't know how to feed my children, and after coming to this country, everything was so different. I spoke no English, I couldn't drive, I couldn't learn. I wanted to die, too."
A U.S. sponsor and the friendship of other war widows have helped her overcome her isolation, she said. Although she is old, Xiong said, she is eager to study for the citizenship exam.
"We're here in this country, and what we need to do is become Americans," she said. "It's important to become a citizen because wherever you go, you have rights like everybody else."
_ Washington Bureau correspondent Rob Hotakainen and the Associated Press contributed to this report.