Posted at 6:59 p.m. PST Friday, December 26, 1997 To some Laotians, U.S. is land of false promises N.Y. Times News Service WASHINGTON -- From 1961 to 1974, the Central Intelligence Agency, carrying out the foreign policy of the United States, enlisted the mountain tribes of Laos as guerrillas in the Vietnam War. Some 36,000 Laotians battled North Vietnamese troops, rescued downed American pilots and guarded the radars that guided Air Force bombers. Thousands of the tribesmen died. In return, the United States gave the tribespeople rice and promised them refuge if things went badly. After the war, thousands of Laotian veterans and their families resettled in this country as refugees. But in last year's welfare reform act, Congress voted to deny some forms of federal assistance to the 1.8 million legal immigrants in the United States. Now the Department of Agriculture, carrying out the domestic policy of the United States, has cut off food stamps to the Laotians. The cutoff has led to despair and suicides among the refugees as it took effect in recent weeks, according to the Laotians' community leaders and lawyers. The Laotians, most of whom are members of the Hmong tribe, were migratory slash-and-burn farmers with only the rudiments of a written language when the CIA arrived to teach them the art of modern war in 1961. They were left behind when the the United States left their country in 1974. Thousands of them, many physically or mentally wounded by war and exile, trekked through jungles to refugee camps in Thailand in the late 1970s. They settled in California, Minnesota, Wisconsin and a handful of other states, and have tried to overcome high barriers of skill, education, language and culture in a land far from their roots. ``It's very difficult for our people to get a job,'' said Xia Cao Vang, director of the Lao Family Community Center in Sacramento, Calif. ``The people who were involved with CIA in Laos are 45, 50, 55 years of age, and the companies here in the United States won't accept anyone of that age.'' Two Hmong women in California, one in Fresno and one in Sacramento, committed suicide this fall, leaving messages blaming the welfare cutoff. A third suicide of a Hmong elder was reported in Wisconsin, and social-services providers say suicide threats are commonplace, despite strict cultural taboos. After the suicide of Chia Yang, the woman in Sacramento, one of her sons, Toby Vue, told The Sacramento Bee: ``The number-one reason she took her life was welfare reform.'' The article drew many letters to the editor, most of them hostile to the Hmong (pronounced Mong). ``You can't believe the level of desperation and the level of betrayal they feel,'' said Jayne Park, an attorney for the Laotian veterans. This summer, Congress put a formal statement in the 1997 budget act, saying that the Laotians who fought for the United States were in effect Vietnam veterans whose families deserved continued federal assistance. But the statement did not amend the welfare reform act, and thus lacked the force of law. So the Clinton administration cut off the refugees' food stamps, affecting an estimated 16,000 Laotian veterans and tens of thousands of their family members. The Laotians present ``an extraordinarily compelling case,'' said Julie Paradis, the acting deputy undersecretary for food and nutrition at the Department of Agriculture, which administers the federal food stamp program. ``The administration is committed to finding some way to take care of these people,'' Ms. Paradis said. But, she added, it may be up to Congress, not the White House, to solve the problem with new laws. Lawyers who represent the Laotians, however, say the secretary of agriculture, Dan Glickman, has the authority to make food stamps available to the Laotians if he wishes. The cutoff of food stamps to the Laotians saved an estimated $9 million a year, or about one-thirtieth of one percent of the annual federal food stamp budget. But the costs have been high for the refugees. In California, home to more than half the roughly 170,000 Laotian refugees, the effects have been especially harsh. This summer, California officials who administer the federal program and the state's own food assistance shut off food stamps for nearly 20,000 Laotians between the ages of 18 and 65. The state denied appeals from 4,000 of them this fall, and ordered them to pay back the benefits they received during the months that their cases were appealed. The lieutenant governor of California, Gray Davis, asked the state's Social Services director last month to ``restore the benefits Hmong veterans in California recently lost and so unquestionably deserve.'' The request was denied. The veterans say their prospects for moving from welfare to work are slim. Khao Insixiengmay, a veteran of the CIA's secret war and head of the Lao Parents and Teachers Association in Minneapolis, said: ``Those who were trained and equipped by the CIA and the American advisers and fought in the war had little time for education, and it was a long war.'' ``When they came here they have little education, little skill,'' he said. ``Many became mentally and physically unstable.'' Now, with the cutbacks, ``people are under the poverty line and they have a problem to survive in this new society,'' he said. ``They do not know who to turn to.'' In Minnesota, where the state has provided some funds to make up for the federal cutbacks, hundreds of Laotians have nonetheless been forced to turn to food banks for basic subsistence, said Daniel Krotz, executive director of Minneapolis' Center for Asians and Pacific Islanders. The heads of their families -- which, on average, include eight to 10 people -- can find jobs paying little more than the minimum wage, he said. A sense of bitterness among people who served the United States in covert Cold War operations is not unique to the Laotians. Vietnamese commandos captured behind enemy lines during the war were written off as dead by the United States, only to reappear after many years in prison, asking for $2,000 a year in back pay. But the Laotians are a special case, according to CIA veterans who worked with them during the Vietnam war. They fought so hard and so long in a losing cause that many families were down to the last surviving male, often a boy of 13 or 14, by the time the United States began pulling out. ``Survival of the tribe was becoming a major concern'' by the time the United States began withdrawing from the war, according to an Air Force study. A quarter-century later, the Laotians say their prospects for survival have been damaged by welfare reform. ``We feel that we have been betrayed,'' said Blong Lo, a leader of the Coalition for Hmong and Lao Veterans in Chico. )1997 Mercury Center. The information you receive online from Mercury Center is protected by the copyright laws of the United States. The copyright laws prohibit any copying, redistributing, retransmitting, or repurposing of any copyright-protected material.
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