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Congress hears plea for help from Hmong vets seeking citizenship

June 26, 1997

WASHINGTON (AP) _ To their supporters, the Hmong military veterans who assisted the U.S. war effort in Vietnam are heroes who deserve U.S. citizenship even if they have trouble meeting the requirements.

``They have passed the most important test, that is risking their lives for the values and beliefs that we revere,″ Rep. Bruce Vento, D-Minn., told a House Judiciary subcommittee Thursday.

But his proposal to waive residency and English proficiency requirements for the Hmong vets would be hard to police and would encourage other ethnic groups to seek similar treatment, an Immigration and Naturalization Service official cautioned.

While the administration has taken no position on the legislation, Louis Crocetti, the agency’s associate commissioner for examinations, said it would be difficult to prove that someone served in the war unless there were military records.

The legislation would ``set a precedent for other groups who do not share the unique situation of the Hmong,″ Crocetti said.

The subcommittee chairman, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said that existing exemptions for immigrants with long U.S. residency would ``go a long way toward″ helping Hmong achieve citizenship.

The Hmong, rural Laotians, were recruited by the CIA to fight Communist insurgents in Laos during the 1960s and 1970s. It is estimated that up to 20,000 Hmong died assisting U.S. troops.

No other combatants in Indochina fought ``harder, more effectively, and with greater courage despite terrible losses, than the Hmong,″ said Mark Pratt, a former State Department official who served in Laos during the war.

The chairwoman of the Ramsey County, Minn., commission, Susan Haigh, made an emotional appeal for the legislation. Hmong immigrants have rehabilitated a decaying area of St. Paul and become political leaders, lawyers, doctors and teachers in the city; their children are some of its best students, she said.

Her voice breaking, she asked, ``Can we not give back to them the recognition they deserve and make them American citizens?″

Congress also is exploring ways to soften the impact of last year’s welfare overhaul, which will cut off disability benefits to legal immigrants this summer.

The United States has admitted thousands of Hmong as refugees over the past two decades. An estimated 25,000 now live in St. Paul, Minn., part of Vento’s district. The 1990 census counted 90,000 Hmong nationwide.

Many find it difficult to learn English because their native language wasn’t put into writing until recent years, supporters say.

Thirty Hmong men, dressed in military fatigues, attended the hearing Thursday.

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