EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second story in a series as the Post Bulletin follows the progress of Yong Nhia Lor as he works to become a U.S. citizen.
WINONA — Yong Nhia Lor wants that feeling in his heart to become a legal reality.
That, Lor said, is the feeling that he is an American.
"I have a new country and have to show great respect to that country and the officials," Lor said. "It’s my country."
With his wife and then-five children in tow, Lor arrived in the United States 33 years ago thinking that he was already a U.S. citizen.
After all, he'd fought on the side of the U.S. forces during the civil war in his native Laos, and when the royalist forces lost that war, he had given up hope of ever returning. So when the offer came to move to the United States, Lor put up his hand and said he wanted to be an American.
"When we raised our hand to come here, we committed to this country," Lor said. "I am not educated, but when I was involved in the military, I was committed to be a good citizen of this country."
The dream vs. the law
A legal political refugee, Lor later came to understand that citizenship is more than just wanting to be an American. There is a process, one he is now committed to finishing, hopefully within the next few months.
Since arriving in this country 1988 and settling in Winona in 1989, Lor has worked, raised a family – he and his wife, Judy Xiong, had five more children in the U.S. – and settled into life in the United States.
His children – the ones born in Southeast Asia – have become U.S. citizens, several getting married and starting to raise their own families. Then, in 2011, Judy became a U.S. citizen, filing the paperwork, taking the citizenship test and swearing her oath.
But the time commitment of providing for his family and, later, a car crash that left him disabled for quite some time, kept Lor from following the path he'd long desired in his heart.
Next citizenship steps
Earlier this year, Lor made the decision to become a citizen.
Currently, he's in the midst of filling out his immigration paperwork and studying for the citizenship test.
Chong Sher Vang, a translator and immigration specialist with Project FINE in Winona, said while filing out the immigration paperwork takes about an hour, the hardest part is having all the information ready. For example, immigration needs to know any applicant's work history and the whereabouts of any family members in the country.
The bigger concern, Lor said, is passing the citizenship test.
When his wife took the test, all their children – who all speak English and graduated from Winona High School where they learned American history and government – were still living at home, and were able to help her study. Today, however, all their children have grown up and moved out, Lor said.
And the subjects that are part of a citizenship test are subjects he's never really studied.
"I did not have the time because of the commitment to the family and the kids," Lor said. "I worry because I don’t know much, and I don’t know if I’ll pass or not. I haven’t had a chance to learn at a young age. And I came to this country with young children."
Vang said he's taught plenty of people studying for their citizenship test.
"If they practice on their own, not just rely on us here, they should do OK," Vang said. "I love teaching. Not just for the test but so they really learn. I want to give them as much as I know."
Vang admits he loves history and is something of an American Civil War buff.
The final process
Once the paperwork is submitted, Vang said, Lor will get a test date. He'll be allowed to take the test twice should he fail the first time. However, if he fails a second time, he'll need to start over, resubmitting his paperwork another time.
Preparing for that, Vang said there is a same test of 100 questions, but the reality is most applicants are only asked a few questions.
For example, Judy said she was asked only two questions at her test: Who was president during the Civil War, and what is the longest river in the country?
And while most tests are given in English, there are exceptions made for individuals who are 65 or old, or who have lived in the United States for more than 15 years, Vang said.
While he finishes his paperwork and studies for the test to come, Lor said he hopes for the best even as he worries about failing the test.
But none of that will change how he feels about the country that, in his heart, has long been his country.
"I have been living here over 30 years, and I haven’t had any problems with anyone in the community," he said.