WASHINGTON — That was no ordinary queue of veterans, 3,000 of them plus their families, waiting to pay their respects at the Vietnam War Memorial here last week.
They were Hmong and Laotian fighters, recruits in the United States' secret war against the communists between 1961 and 1973. Until last year, they had received no formal recognition from the US for their service.
Now a memorial sits at Arlington National Cemetery honoring their role. But the men want more: help in getting citizenship for Hmong veterans, many of whom have little formal education and have been unable to learn English.
Rep. Bruce Vento (D) of Minnesota, where many Hmong refugees have settled, has been pushing legislation for years that would ease naturalization requirements for Hmong and Laotian peoples who fought for the US in the war.
The bill would waive the requirement to learn English and allow veterans to take the naturalization exam with an interpreter. Gaining citizenship has taken on new importance in recent years because of welfare reform, which withheld certain benefits to noncitizens.
The House bill has 57 cosponsors, but other members are concerned the legislation could open up the immigration process to fraud, since Hmong fighters lack documentation of their service.
About 40,000 Hmong fought in the clandestine force, diverting North Vietnamese soldiers, gathering intelligence, and helping downed American pilots.
"In the US, there are many thousands of veterans who can't read," says Pang Blia Vang, an Asian food-store worker in Menomonee Falls, Wis., and president of Wisconsin Lao Veterans. "There are also widows and kids who need help."
D.L. "Pappy" Hicks, an American vet, stands near the head of the line of fatigue-clad Hmong and Laotians waiting to see the memorial. "You see these men?" he says. "If they hadn't fought, there'd be 10,000 more names on this wall."