English Class Graduation, Lao Family Community Center, St. Paul. 1981. Photographer: Michael Kieger.
The Hmong language did not have a written form until recently, making it difficult for veterans to learn English. Former President Clinton signed a bill in May 2000 that would give Laotians recruited by the CIA for covert military actions during the Vietnam War, and their spouses and widows, to take the citizenship test in their native language. The poorly drafted law excludes those who entered the United States before 1980. Most are Hmong, an ethnic group from the highland of Laos. The late Rep. Bruce Vento of Minnesota fought for the original legislation for a decade, finally winning passage of it a few months before dying of lung cancer.
Although the law allowed for 45,000 people to become citizens under the relaxed requirements, less than 5,000 have been naturalized, according to Philip Smith, Washington director of Lao Veterans of America.