Students support aid for Hmong

by Max Rust

When President Clinton signed the welfare reform bill in August, both supplemental security income and food stamps for legal immigrants were eliminated.
Now University students are helping to pass H.R. 371, a bill introduced by Rep. Bruce Vento, D-Minn., that might help ease the effects of the cuts for Hmong veterans of the Vietnam War living in the United States.
About a dozen University students attended a letter-writing and information session on Tuesday evening at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. There they took action, urging Minnesota House and Senate representatives to co-sponsor 371.
The bill would allow Hmong veterans and their spouses or widows to take the citizenship test with the assistance of an interpreter. The bill would also waive the residency requirement for Hmong veterans in order to facilitate the process of family reunification.
“What’s really important about this bill, is that it’s not a response to welfare reform,” said Chia Youyee Vang, a Humphrey Institute graduate and who is now hunger and poverty program officer for the Urban Coalition.
“All this bill asks for is citizenship. We (the Hmong people) have never had a country of our own. We are a nomadic people.”
Vang is a member of the Minnesota Hmong community, which, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, numbers about 32,000 people. The vast majority of these people live in the Twin Cities area.
The Hmong people come from the country of Laos. From 1961 to 1975 the Hmong, persuaded by the CIA, fought for the United States in Special Guerrilla Units during the Vietnam War.
In what is known as the “Secret War of Laos,” these special units battled against the North Vietnamese and rescued American pilots. An estimated 10,000 to 20,000 Hmong were killed during these efforts. After the war, the Hmong were persecuted by the Viet Cong and given refugee status to come to the United States. The largest number of Hmong refugees came to the United States in the early 1980s.
Vang said the majority of Hmong refugees have a hard time passing the U.S. citizenship exam because they cannot speak English, disabling them from passing certain segments of the test, including the writing of an English sentence.
“The Hmong [written] language was established in 1953. A lot of these people don’t even know how to read and write in their own language, so how can they be expected to learn English, pass their citizenship test and pass that written sentence that they have to?” Vang asked.
She said that a lot of Hmong refugees of the Vietnam War suffer from mental illness and flashbacks as well, and that might hinder their performance on a citizenship exam.
The legislation would help those who once helped the U.S. government, but it has a long way to go before it will be passed.
Vang explained that a big part of getting the bill passed will be to lobby members of the U.S. Senate to sponsor a companion bill.
“Last year, this bill was attached to the immigration bill, and it died right away. This year, if we can get somebody in the Senate to sponsor the bill, we’ll have a better chance of getting it passed.”
One politician who letter writers targeted on Tuesday night and hope will create a complementary bill is Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn.
Students at the meeting discussed Wellstone’s push for legislation that would restore supplemental security income and food stamps to legal immigrants.
The senator will be sponsoring a rally on May 7 to restore benefits to legal immigrants.
The Humphrey Institute held a public forum on April 17 on the issue. Students learned how to become involved in the lobbying process.