I appreciate the opportunity to speak before this panel today about the possible implications of H.R. 371, a bill which seeks to make acquiring citizenship easier for certain immigrants who fought in Laos against the Communists as our allies during the Vietnam War. As a research organization, the Center does not recommend that lawmakers vote for or against any specific piece of legislation, but I ask that members of this panel consider the full implications of H.R. 371 before acting on it.
Other witnesses and commentators no doubt will highlight the heroism of the Hmong tribesmen who fought against totalitarian aggression and who, after the Communist victory, were subjected to genocidal retaliation from Hanoi in the form of the infamous "yellow rain." I, too, laud the bravery of the Hmong in the defense of freedom, and fully appreciate their subsequent ordeal, my own grandparents having survived the first genocide of this bloody century.
It was for these reasons that the United States admitted thousands of Hmong refugees over the past twenty years — the 1990 census counted 90,000 Hmong, including some American-born children. There is a strong argument that our nation had a responsibility to take in the Hmong after the Communist victories in Southeast Asia, given our involvement in organizing and supporting their military efforts. Providing our former allies safe haven in the face of an enemy extermination campaign would thus seem to have been the right thing to do.
The bill under discussion, however, carries this responsibility further. It would waive the English- language requirement for naturalization, and would treat former Hmong guerrillas seeking naturalization as though they were veterans of the United States armed forces, thus waiving the residency requirement. This would eliminate two of the requirements — a minimum period of residency and a knowledge of the English language — which are intended to ensure that new citizens are sufficiently rooted and invested in the United States to be entrusted with a permanent role in our future.
The House of Representatives was instrumental in the recent tightening of the procedures for naturalization, prompting the Immigration and Naturalization Service to, among other things, wait for the completion of FBI fingerprint checks before proceeding with any alien's citizenship application. This and other measures are helping to safeguard the integrity of one of our most important institutions — the granting of membership in our nation to outsiders. Though many challenges remain, I am confident that the vigilance of members of this House, along with the ongoing efforts of the INS, will make sure that the process of minting new Americans will not be further compromised.
However, H.R. 371 and other measures like it which are before the House would appear to fly in the face of these efforts by promoting the further cheapening of United States citizenship. The contradiction would be stark between this House's insistence on tougher procedures for those who have met the normal citizenship requirements and the simultaneous extension of special treatment to other groups. The mixed signals sent by such a move would further muddy America's image in the eyes of current and future immigrants and contribute to the growing cynicism plaguing our polity.
Beyond the debasing of United States citizenship H.R. 371 would bring about, its adoption also would corrupt the immigration law with yet another special-interest gimmick. The immigration law, after all, takes second place only to the tax law in being larded with provisions intended to benefit politically connected constituencies. And this measure is not just any gimmick, but arguably the worst kind — one intended to benefit a specific ethnic group, joining other such schemes, such as the Lautenberg Amendment (which, in effect, grants presumptive refugee status to, among others, Jews and Ukrainian Catholics and Orthodox from the former U.S.S.R.), the Diversity Lottery (which started as an amnesty for Irish illegal aliens and is now an immigrant- recruitment program for Africans and Eastern Europeans), the Cuban Adjustment Act, the Chinese Students Protection Act, and others.
National origins quotas were rightly eliminated from the immigration law in 1965; the principle of a racially and ethnically neutral immigration policy in the national interest cannot be upheld if the immigration law is shaped by the special pleading of the myriad ethnic groups that exist in our country.
What's more, the inequity of such legislation could inflame ethnic grievances and conflict. Mexicans, after all, are the largest national-origin group seeking naturalization, and they are expected to meet all the normal requirements — while other groups, perhaps viewed as more sympathetic by some, would be admitted without meeting certain requirements — affirmative action citizenship, if you will.
It is clear that H.R. 371 and other legislation intended to expedite the naturalization of various groups is prompted by the welfare reform law enacted last year, which barred most non-citizens from most federal welfare benefits. The Hmong, in particular, have a high rate of welfare dependency and a low rate of naturalization. The Office of Refugee Resettlement reported that in Fiscal Year 1995 Laotian refugees, about half of whom are Hmong, had a welfare participation rate of 85 percent, while a Center for Immigration Studies report based on the 1990 census found that only 17 percent of Laotians were naturalized, and even among those who had been in the United States for more than 10 years, only about one-third were citizens.
But if the objective is to maintain welfare eligibility for people who are not now citizens, logic would dictate addressing that problem forthrightly, rather that through the side door of naturalization. Handing out citizenship like lollipops at a doctor's office would indeed preserve the welfare eligibility of the new Americans, but only at the cost of debasing the meaning of Americanism. This is a bargain which I urge lawmakers to think long and hard about before making.
And, looking ahead, the dilution of standards this bill and others like it represent would open the door to further assaults on the integrity of the entire immigration and naturalization process. For instance, spokesmen for Central American illegal aliens, including the governments of the very countries they fled, are pressuring Congress and the administration for yet more ethnically specific exemptions from the rules, in order to avoid the deportation of several hundred thousand people. Would arguments against another illegal-alien amnesty be plausible in the wake of H.R. 371 and similar special-interest legislation?
Thank you for your indulgence, Mr. Chairman, and I will be happy to try to answer any questions you or other members of the subcommittee may have.