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Limits on Hmong seeking asylum could be eased

By Frederic J. Frommer

Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The massive budget bill being considered by Congress contains legislation that would make it easier for Vietnam War allies such as the Hmong to seek asylum in the U.S., by changing a law that bars people who take up arms from asylum or green cards.

Under provisions of the USA Patriot Act and the Real ID Act, the Hmong who fought alongside Americans in the "secret war" against communists in the 1960s and 1970s in Laos are disqualified because they are considered terrorists.

The end-of-the-year, $500 billion-plus catchall bill has language that declares that the Hmong, and other groups that had been ensnared by the anti-terrorism laws, such as the Montagnards from Vietnam, are not to be considered terrorists. Many Montagnards were also U.S. allies during the Vietnam War.

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Among the other groups spelled out for relief are rebel groups from Burma, now called Myanmar, such as the Karen National Union and Chin National Front and the now-defunct, anti-Castro Cuban Alzado insurgency.

"The illogical rules that now apply are an affront to our values and our honor," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who pushed for the change. "Many of these people were our allies. They were there for us when we needed them, and we should not turn our backs when they need the safety of our shores. This reform is a step in the right direction, to bring our law more in line with our values."

The Hmong began arriving in the U.S. in large numbers during the 1970s, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, and there were about 170,000 in this country as of the 2000 U.S. Census, with most settled in California, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

In May, the six senators from those states wrote to the attorney general and the secretaries of homeland security and state, urging that a waiver be given to the Hmong. In October, the Bush administration announced that it would grant a waiver to Hmong who provided "material support" to organizations deemed to be terrorist.

But that waiver did not apply to people who actually took up arms. Those people would be covered under the language pending in the giant spending bill, which Congress is expected to approve this week.

"Hmong refugees living in the United States are not terrorists, and to classify them as such is simply wrong," said Sen. Norm Coleman, a Minnesota Republican who championed the change in legislation. "Since the Vietnam War, they have looked to places like Minnesota as a sanctuary from persecution. More importantly, they have become woven into Minnesota’s rich cultural fabric."

Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., said that his Milwaukee office gets several calls a week from Hmong constituents who have been waiting years for a decision on their residency status.

Naomi Steinberg, deputy director of the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, which advocates on behalf of U.S. communities from Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, called the change a "huge victory" for the Hmong and Montagnards.

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Steinberg said that many people have not been able to move forward with getting green cards, which establish permanent residency.

"That stunts their ability to become citizens," she said. "When this law is enacted, that will cease to be a problem. This will be a tremendous help."

Change is coming: Congress is set to provide relief to the Hmong and other groups who have been denied asylum and green cards if they took up arms.

The history: Some Hmong have been caught up because they fought alongside Americans in the "secret war" against communists in the 1960s and 1970s in Laos.

What’s next: The legislative change is pending in a large spending bill which Congress is expected to pass this week.

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