The Land Of Broken Promises The Hmong, Brave Fighters In Vietnam, Now Falling Victim To U.S. Welfare Cuts
The scars won’t let him forget.
Small and dark, they blemish Chong Her Lo’s calves and remind him of the secret war that forever changed his people.
Thirty years ago in the jungles of Laos, thousands of Hmong tribesmen fought against the Pathet Lao, a Communist group that attacked U.S. forces in Vietnam.
Lo watched as the Pathet Lao bombed his village and killed his loved ones. In return for loyalty, he said, the U.S. government promised to take care of him and his family.
Now, the Spokane resident feels abandoned.
In September, Lo and other Hmong veterans who haven’t become U.S. citizens will be cut off from Supplemental Security Income, a federal program that gives money to many of the nation’s elderly and disabled. Their wives, widows and children also will stop receiving the aid.
Welfare reform legislation signed by President Clinton eliminates the federal assistance to legal immigrants, including the Hmong.
Although a Washington state welfare program will make up some of the loss, many of the Hmong in Spokane aren’t aware of the state help or don’t believe it’s true. Some are still in shock that they are getting cut off from SSI.
“We thought Americans and Hmong were friends,” the 67-year-old Lo said through an interpreter.
“We believed in the U.S.
commitment to the Hmong, but the promise wasn’t kept.
“Kill me instead of letting me suffer in society without help.”
The Hmong began arriving the U.S. in the late 1970s. Hundreds resettled in Spokane with the help of local churches.
Enlisted a decade earlier by the Central Intelligence Agency, these villagers from the Laotian hillsides helped rescue American pilots downed in the jungles of Southeast Asia.
With a few weeks’ training, the CIA transformed Third World farmers who hunted with bows into a guerrilla fighting force with M-16s and hand grenades.
As many as 40,000 Hmong soldiers and their families were killed in combat, estimates the Lao Veterans of America, a group that includes the Hmong. Nearly 3,000 are missing.
In 1975, the Hmong discovered they had backed the losers. When Laos fell to the Communists, the Pathet Lao began eradicating the Hmong.
Hundreds of thousands fled south and west to Thailand, where refugee camps collected the flotsam of the region’s wars. Thousands drowned or died of hunger and disease en route to the camps.
An estimated 150,000 Hmong came to the United States, most settling in Minnesota and California.
They arrived as refugees, a special status that eased their entry. But the men who fought the war and their families were not eligible for veterans’ programs.
After five years in America, the Hmong who did not become citizens were reclassified as legal immigrants - they can remain permanently, work if they are able and pay taxes, but they cannot vote.
While their children were assimilated into American schools and culture, many of the adult Hmong struggled to grasp a new language and foreign customs. After nearly 20 years, some still cannot speak enough English to pass a citizenship test.
Among Spokane’s Hmong population of about 400, one in five will be affected by the SSI cutoff, said Vang Xiong, an interpreter who immigrated to Spokane in 1976.
Mai Yang must plead with her eyes - tired, brown and almond-shaped.
She is 65 years old, 4-foot-6 and doesn’t speak a word of English.
Her most cherished possession is a photo - framed, poster-size and out-of-focus - of three Hmong men standing stiffly in shabby uniforms.
The tallest man on the right is her late husband, Xia Yia.
The original 4-by-6-inch photograph was her ticket to America - the only proof she had that she was a war widow.
Yang, who lost three of her four children to disease during their 1989 flight from Laos, still remembers when her husband left for war.
“When he left he said to take care of the children and that he would be back,” said Yang, clutching her husband’s photo. “But he didn’t come back.”
For Yang, a North Spokane resident who provides for a son and granddaughter, $390 a month in SSI plus $40 a week in food stamps doesn’t go far.
In Laos, Hmong who lose their fortune can simply borrow a couple of chickens from the neighbors and start over, she said. They hunted for food, lived in dirt-floor huts, sometimes with as many as 18 family members to a room.
In Spokane, they must find jobs, try to learn English and adapt to new customs and traditions to survive. They had to learn about telephones and grocery stores.
The fiercely independent and passionate people are different from most immigrants. Because their own language wasn’t put into written form until the 1950s, some also can’t even read their native language.
Chao Xiong, 53, recalls the day in the early 1960s when the CIA official arrived at his village.
The villagers knew him as Tony. To the rest of the world, he was Tony Poe, a legendary character who would later become the inspiration for Marlon Brando’s role in “Apocalypse Now.”
Within days, Tony had sent Xiong and others to Thailand for training. For the next 10 years, they fought for the United States, believing they would be rewarded and protected in return. The Hmong tell of continuing to fight despite a shredded arm or blood spilling from their wounds.
“Anxiety and fear existed every second,” Xiong said.
Their wives and children fled as the Communists approached their villages.
Sometimes, U.S. airplanes would drop food for them, said Pao Mee Yang, who moved to Spokane in 1979 with her husband, Ka Toua Xiong, and their seven children.
“We were scared of bad news,” she said. “Every single second, you were scared because your husband wasn’t home.”
Fighting the secret war still costs the Hmong.
Other foreigners who enlisted in the U.S. military were eligible to become naturalized citizens without taking an English test.
But the Hmong had no service records or discharge papers to help them be naturalized when they arrived in America. Now, under welfare reform passed by Congress last year, citizenship is a requirement for federal assistance.
When Congress cut off federal assistance for legal immigrants to save federal dollars, it said the states could use their own money to extend aid programs.
At the urging of Gov. Gary Locke, himself the son of immigrant parents, Washington state decided this year to extend welfare to all legal immigrants. But the amount of aid will drop by a third.
“The same bullet that the U.S. gave to us to fight the Communists should be used on us,” said Ngiacher Xiong, a 70-year-old former officer in the Hmong army who now lives in Spokane. “Without the assistance, we can’t pay the rent. We can’t live.’
Last month, Chue Tou Vang of Madison, Wis., hanged himself in a barn after receiving a letter telling him his family would soon lose SSI.
Thuey Vu of the Washington state Department of Social and Health Services said state officials do not want that to happen here.
But the Hmong don’t understand the intricacies of two welfare bureaucracies. They know the federal government is cutting them off SSI, but many aren’t aware the state will replace as much as two-thirds of their aid.
Earlier this year, the Social Security Administration sent many elderly Hmong a letter telling them that they will lose their SSI.
When the Washington Legislature decided a few months later to provide some help to the Hmong and other immigrants, no one sent them a second letter. And until recently, many didn’t realize they would be automatically transferred to the new state program.
State social workers also will help the Hmong become citizens. The state will pay their tuition for classes to study the citizenship test and even pay the fee for the test. Eventually, it will distribute a video, sponsored by the Boeing Co., that explains citizenship in the Hmong language.
Vang Xiong, who usually translates for the elderly Hmong, has tried to convince them that all is not lost, that they will still receive some aid.
But they won’t believe him, Vang Xiong said.
You are Hmong, like us, they tell him. What if you are wrong? Can we come live with you when we lose our homes?
With the help of The Spokesman-Review, he obtained a copy of a document from the state that explains the most recent plans for welfare.
“We want to be productive citizens,” said Ka Toua Xiong, an American citizen and leader among the Spokane Hmong community. “We were not prepared to come to America. We just wanted to live another day.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 photos (1 color)