After half an hour of quiet discussion, the House Judiciary Committee passed by voice vote yesterday a bill that may eventually lead to U.S. citizenship for 150,000 Indochinese refugees.
The bill - H.R. 7769 - is noncontroversial and is expected to be passed by the full House sometime in August. It would give refugees from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia three years to apply for an adjustment of status, from the present classification of "parolee" to that of a permanent resident.
As parolees, the 150,000 Indochinese refugees currently living in the United States are eligible for public assistance programs and Social Security. They cannot vote or enlist in military service.
As permanent residents, the refugees would be allowed to enlist but not to vote. The biggest benefits of the adjustment of status, according to committee staffers, would be better job opportunities in many professions that require more than parole status for granting licenses.
Aside from immediate benefits, which vary widely according to state laws, the change in status for refugees would be the first step on the road to full citizenship. The bill's provisions would be retroactive, allowing refugees who have been in the United States for two years to count that time as part of the five-year residency requirement for citizenship.
"In effect, we're giving them a jump time-wise on citizenship: this isn't ordinarily done," said an official of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
The cost of the measure is an estimated $2.5 million, which must be appropriated by Congress and would go toward extra staffing at INS to deal with the expected onslaught of applications for status change.
"It's essentially paperwork money," said the INS official.