WASHINGTON -- Less than 6 percent of the people eligible have taken advantage of a law passed last year aimed at helping Laotian and Hmong veterans and their spouses become U.S. citizens. With the law set to expire in November, advocates are scrambling to extend it for another 18 months.
The Lao Veterans of America, which worked with the late Rep. Bruce Vento, D-Minn., to pass the original bill, blames the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service for the small turnout. A little more than 2,500 people have become citizens under the law, according to the INS.
Other Hmong advocacy groups say a lack of resources has hindered outreach efforts, which include teaching American history classes in Hmong.
Last year's law allows Laotians recruited by the CIA for covert military actions during the Vietnam War -- most of them Hmong -- to take the citizenship test in their native language. The citizenship test includes questions about U.S. history and government.
The rationale was that the Hmong language did not have a written form until recently, making it difficult for the veterans to learn English. The legislation imposed a cap of 45,000 people.
Reps. George Radanovich, R-Calif., and Betty McCollum, D-Minn., plan to introduce legislation next week extending the law for another 18 months.
McCollum, a freshman lawmaker, replaced Vento, who spent a decade crusading for the original bill before it passed only months before he died of lung cancer.
Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., will seek to attach a similar extension to an appropriations bill as early as next week.
Minnesota is home to more than 60,000 Hmong, second only to California. Wisconsin is third with more than 45,000 Hmong.
President Bill Clinton signed the original legislation into law in May of last year, but the INS didn't implement it for another 2 1/2 months.
Philip Smith, lobbyist for the Lao Veterans of America, said that even after that, some regional INS offices didn't know about the law and turned people away who were seeking to take the test with a translator.
"I would lay a significant amount of blame on the INS regional offices where the left hand didn't know what the right hand was doing," he said, adding that the problems continue.
INS spokeswoman Elaine Comis said the 2 1/2 month-turnaround was actually pretty good, and that the agency did not know of any problems involving field offices turning people away.
Comis said the participation rate is low because most of those eligible are applying for citizenship under the normal procedures. But she conceded that the agency didn't have any hard numbers to document that.
Smith called her argument "utterly absurd." He said that most of the estimated 42,000 Hmong who are eligible for the law would take advantage of it if the INS had a user-friendly system.
Bo Thao, executive director of Hmong National Development, a Washington-based umbrella group, said local communities are struggling with a lack of interpreters to teach classes.
Another problem, she said, is that some veterans are unaware of the law or are misinformed about it.
"Some people have been misled -- they think it's an automatic citizenship," she said.
Thao said her group is considering public service announcements on radio stations and leaflets in Hmong to help educate people about the law.
Some Hmong communities are big enough to provide classes and translators for aspiring citizens. The Milwaukee and St. Paul branches of Lao Family Community, for example, both offer day and night day classes in Hmong. The classes meet for a couple of months before a person takes the test.
But in some rural areas, those services are not as easy to come by.
"The problem we're running into is where the Hmong vets and widows are living in these rural areas, there's a problem in getting them help in translation," said Smith.
"We have to spend a lot of time one-on-one with the people, have a translator there, volunteer there."
Smith said his group is launching "Operation New American," aimed at both signing up more people for citizenship and lobbying for an extension of the law. That will include a letter-writing campaign to members of Congress as well as Capitol Hill rallies, he said.
One person who was able to become a U.S. citizen because of the law is Chong Ge Cha, who served as a Marine in the covert war and now lives in St. Paul.
He became a citizen on June 27, 25 years after coming to this country; his wife became a citizen on July 18.
"I couldn't take the test in English," said Cha, 54, who works as a janitor. "I don't have time to learn English."
The citizenship test was translated into Hmong for him.
"It feels very good," said Cha, 54. "I feel happy and very good -- more than before I was an American citizen."
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