(AP) The Senate has passed legislation that would ease the impact of anti-terrorism laws on Hmong and other refugees, but it faces an uncertain future.
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 considered "terrorists." That disqualifies them for asylum or green cards.
Late Thursday night, the Senate approved an amendment by Sens. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., and Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., that says 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.
The amendment was part of a larger bill funding foreign aid and U.S. diplomacy, which faces a veto threat over issues unrelated to the Hmong provision.
"Since the Vietnam War, Hmong refugees have dedicated their service to this nation, and to be classified as terrorists is simply unacceptable," Coleman said.
But he acknowledged a "major hurdle" remains with President Bush's veto threat.
"At the end of the day, I am confident that we will obtain a legislative solution to this problem that will be signed into law," he said.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that wrote the legislation, authored the provision and negotiated the amendment with Kyl, who had blocked an earlier attempt at reform. Coleman joined with Kyl in offering the amendment.
"The current law is illogical, and it is unfair," Leahy said. "It is an affront to our values and our honor to shut our doors to persecuted allies like these. They were there for us when we needed them, and we should not turn our backs when they need the safety of our shores."
The Hmong began arriving in large numbers during the 1970s, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, and there were about 170,000 in the U.S. as of the 2000 U.S. Census, with most settled in California, Minnesota and Wisconsin. A later wave of about 15,000 settled in this country in 2005.
Advocates say the restrictions have prevented some Hmong refugees from coming to the U.S. and made it difficult for some who are already here to obtain green cards, which establish permanent residency.
In Thailand, 8,000 ethnic Hmong are at an informal refugee settlement in the northern province of Phetchabun, about 62 miles from the Laos border. Thai and Lao officials said this week they would be screened to determine which ones should be returned to Laos.
But the Hmong, many of whom fought on the side of the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s, say they fear persecution if they are returned.
Philip Smith, the Washington director of Lao Veterans of America, a Hmong advocacy group, called the amendment's passage "a big step." He said he was hopeful the U.S. would take the Hmong from Thailand if the legislation becomes law.