Hmong leaders are voicing alarm over diplomatic talks they fear could spur deportations to Laos for the first time since the Hmong started arriving here four decades ago.
Fueling these concerns are impending deportations that have roiled local Cambodians, another longtime Southeast Asian refugee community in the Twin Cities. Supporters of eight Cambodian permanent residents with criminal convictions who face deportation held a string of protests in recent weeks.
Advocates are taking fresh aim at a 2002 repatriation agreement with Cambodia — and cautioning against the possible fallout from a similar agreement with Laos that President Obama reportedly discussed during his recent visit there. They argue a national push to deport immigrants with criminal backgrounds shouldn't sweep up those brought here by parents fleeing violent conflicts, especially ones in which the United States was involved.
"They are here because we were there," Rep. Keith Ellison said of Cambodian refugees. "They came here, and we deport their children back there."
But the Obama administration also faces pressure to toe a harder line on deporting immigrants with criminal offenses and is pressing their homelands. Recently, supporters of stricter immigration enforcement have focused on crimes committed by immigrants after their release from prison.
As the administration works to improve relations with Asian countries and offset China's influence, some local advocates say Karen refugees from Myanmar might at some point lose immunity from deportation.
Ched Nin was born in a Thai refugee camp after his parents fled Cambodia's genocidal Khmer Rouge regime in 1979. He was 6 when his family was resettled in Minnesota, still reeling from the loss of older children back in Asia.
In Nin's 20s came a string of misdemeanor convictions for thefts, disorderly conduct and violating an order for protection. Then he was convicted of two felonies, for vehicle theft and assault with a dangerous weapon.
Nin's wife, Jenny Srey, says he finished a two-year jail sentence determined to change his life. He earned a supervisory position as a skilled carpenter, married Srey, bought a home in Farmington and volunteered at his church and a Cambodian temple. He is actively involved with his three daughters and two stepsons, and cares for his parents. "He is a good person who got caught up in an environment that's really chaotic," Srey said.
But in August, Nin, 36, and seven other Minnesota men were detained by immigration authorities and slated for deportation to Cambodia. Most have never been in that country. Their offenses include selling drugs, aggravated robbery and an attempted murder 18 years ago.
Like Nin, many in local refugee communities never applied for citizenship: There's the cost, and the civics and English tests that can trip up those with limited English skills.
In 1996, a pair of immigration laws expanded the list of crimes that can get permanent residents deported and made it harder for them to fight their removals. More recently, the Obama administration has sharpened a focus on deporting immigrants with felony convictions or several misdemeanors.
Since the United States signed a repatriation agreement with Cambodia in 2002, about 680 people have been deported there, according to the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, or SEARAC. Because Cambodia accepts a limited number each year, 1,700 with deportation orders are waiting in limbo nationally.
Meanwhile, says John Keller of the St. Paul-based Immigrant Law Center, "What's been happening in the Cambodian community has awakened this issue for the Hmong community."
Minnesota Hmong cautiously welcomed Obama's September visit to Laos: He spoke openly about the U.S. secret war in that country and pledged $90 million to clear unexploded U.S. ordnance. But reports also surfaced that a deportation agreement had been discussed.
By SEARAC's estimate, there are 4,212 Laotians nationally with final deportation orders. A repatriation agreement with Laos would be "devastating to areas such as the Twin Cities," said the center's Mari Quenemoen.
Srey and other supporters of the Cambodian men gathered in front of Ellison's office last week — the latest in a string of efforts that also garnered a promise of help from Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
Ellison vowed to "write every letter and make every phone call" to help the men. He recognized Srey's father and several other men in military uniforms, who he said had helped the United States during the Vietnam War.
Later, Ellison said a repatriation agreement with Laos is "in negotiation."
"We think what's going on with the Cambodian community can happen with Hmong Americans," he said.
Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which supports reducing immigration, rejects the idea that deportation doubly punishes immigrants who have already served their sentences. Noncitizens who commit crimes violate a key condition for remaining in this country, he said.
"Our first responsibility is to safeguard the security and interests of the American people," he said.
But advocates for Cambodian and other deportees from refugee communities argue their families arrived here saddled with trauma and that the United States has a special duty to those displaced by conflicts with U.S. involvement.
Advocates hold up a 2008 agreement with Vietnam that prevents deportations of Vietnam War refugees. They say it should be a model for a revised agreement with Cambodia and a possible pact with Laos.
Meanwhile, the Immigrant Law Center has reached out to public defenders to alert them that Hmong clients considering guilty pleas could become vulnerable to deportation. The center also backs a bill to offer a one-time tax credit to immigrants who become citizens.
Srey says the family is challenging Nin's conviction, arguing his public defender did not disclose the immigration consequences of a guilty plea. They are applying for a stay of deportation based on the hardship it would cause the family.
Sia Her of the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans is planning a series of educational events for Southeast Asian community members on the 1996 legislation.
"I am hearing from community leaders and activists that we need to do much, much more to educate people about this law," she said.
SEARAC's Quenemoen says Karen and other ethnic minorities from Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, are watching the Cambodian deportations "with trepidation."