WASHINGTON — Hmong and Vietnamese refugees who fought for the United States a generation ago could get another chance to join their countrymen in the United States under a big spending bill now heading to the White House.The bill relaxes an anti-terrorist rule that’s kept Southeast Asian refugees in overseas camps or unable to obtain green cards.

An unknown number have been denied entry for actions that U.S. officials once encouraged but which became defined as terrorism following Sept. 11, 2001.

“Many of these people were our allies,” Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont said in a statement. “They were there for us when we needed them, and we should not turn our backs when they need the safety of our shores.”

Leahy’s provision declares the Hmong, Vietnamese Montagnards and several other groups “shall not be considered to be a terrorist organization” on the basis of past actions. This will allow them to enter the United States or obtain a green card, even if they once took up arms.

Leahy chairs the Senate panel that funds the State Department, enabling him to insert the Hmong refugee provision into the nearly 3,500-page spending package. Approved by Congress, the $554.7 billion bill now awaits President Bush’s signature.

It will play out in places like the Valley, Southern California, Wisconsin and Minnesota, where Southeast Asian refugee communities have proliferated since the Vietnam War.
Congress imposed stricter asylum and refugee rules in the USA PATRIOT Act and follow-up legislation. Rules already in place blocked prostitutes, drug abusers, felons and terrorists, among others, from entering the United States. The new laws expanded the definitions covering terrorists.

Notably, the new laws covered those who provide “material support” including money, transportation or help with communicating. The law further specified that an action “unlawful under the laws of the place where it is committed” could be enough to keep a potential refugee out of the United States.

Without apparently meaning to, lawmakers now say, the revisions swept in populations otherwise friendly to the United States. The Bush administration in October waived the rules covering “material support,” but not the rules covering armed fighters.

“For the Hmong people, there were a lot of soldiers who had served under the CIA operations,” Lor noted. “They were still hiding in the (Laotian) jungles and did not want to submit to the communist regime.”

The anti-communist resistance has been controversial and, some believe, lethal.

Hmong military leader Vang Pao, formerly a top ally of the CIA and U.S. Special Forces, and 10 other men now face federal charges of conspiring to overthrow the Laotian government. The men “recruited and organized a military force of insurgent troops” and planned to “engage in the violent overthrow of the existing government of Laos by violent means, including murder,” according to the criminal complaint filed in Sacramento.

In May 2006, Leahy unsuccessfully tried to revise the anti-terrorism provisions as part of a larger immigration bill.

Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer of California opposed him on the effort, as did 77 other senators.

“So you can threaten the security of Israel or Sri Lanka or India or some other country and support that terrorist organization but be permitted to come into the United States?” Republican Sen. Jon Kyl asked during debate. “What sense that does that make?”

Kyl and Leahy subsequently negotiated new language, specifying more narrowly which refugee groups are protected.

In addition to the Hmong from Laos and the Montagnards from Vietnam, the new provision identifies groups including the Karen National Union and Arakan Liberation Party from Burma and anti-Castro groups from Cuba.