Since 1975, nearly 200,000 Hmong and Lao refugees have started new lives in the U.S. In Minnesota and Wisconsin, the heroism of Hmong veterans who fought with U.S. forces during the Vietnam War is not only recognized, but honored. Today, Hmong-American and Lao-American communities are thriving and making our country stronger and more successful.
These communities are now threatened by the Trump administration’s cruel and destructive immigration policies that betray the promises made to Hmong veterans and their families. Today, more than 4,700 Hmong and Lao individuals in the U.S. who never became naturalized citizens face deportation to Laos due to past criminal convictions that may have taken place decades ago.
Ironically, it is the Lao government’s unwillingness to receive deportees and their refusal to sign a repatriation agreement with the U.S., despite pressure from the State Department, that may be the only obstacle preventing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) from carrying out the deportations of Hmong and Lao individuals with orders for removal.
I recently received a letter from a St. Paul constituent at risk of deportation. He wrote that his father fought with Gen. Vang Pao in Laos, and they fled after the war. He arrived in the U.S. as a 5-month-old refugee. His mother eventually became a naturalized citizen and she assumed her son would automatically become a citizen. This was not the case and he now is facing deportation to Laos as a result of a past criminal record.
He writes: “I am now 44 years of age and I am no longer committing crimes. I have a family, I work and pay taxes, and I live a very frugal, and humble, ordinary life … it is inhumane to send someone to a country they’ve never lived in, nor speak the language.”
I completely agree — it is inhumane. It is cruel. And it can be a matter of life and death.
I have long supported reforms to federal immigration law that would allow noncitizens who are contributing community members to receive relief for past mistakes and find a pathway to legal residency and eventual citizenship. For more than a decade, Republicans have instead chosen to scapegoat immigrants as a campaign strategy.
Seeking common ground or constructive, compassionate solutions are not part of today’s Republican policy agenda or political playbook. Instead, their priorities are mass deportations, travel bans, locking up children and misappropriating taxpayer funds to build a useless border wall.
A recent Star Tribune commentary by Sia Lo, a Hmong-American and Republican political opponent, defends deportations to Laos of individuals with orders for removal, saying it “only impacts roughly 4,700 people who lost their legal deportation battle (“McCollum is needlessly terrifying Hmong,” Feb. 27). Mr. Lo believes my efforts highlighting the Trump administration’s plans are politicizing the issue. In fact, it is President Donald Trump’s cruel policies that are causing the devastating fear and suffering in immigrant communities across America.
Trump knows two things: politics drives policy and elections have consequences. We all know that deporting noncitizens is both a policy and political priority for Trump.
So, I too am advocating for policy and political action.
With regard to policy, I have introduced legislation to prohibit any deportations to Laos for 72 months. The Hmong and Lao Refugee Deportation Prohibition Act of 2020 will give Democrats and Republicans in Congress the ability to fight back and send a clear signal to voters that deporting anyone to Laos is unacceptable.
Last week I also met with the Lao People’s Democratic Republic Ambassador to the United States, who provided an update on the status of their negotiations with the State Department on a repatriation agreement. It was made very clear to me that pressure is increasing on the Lao government to sign an agreement and receive deportees, which is deeply concerning.
Politically, voters must use their power to change policy by changing our political leadership. Stopping immigration raids and mass deportations to Laos, Mexico, Vietnam, Liberia, Somalia, Cambodia and elsewhere starts with political action. Voters in November have the power to defeat President Trump and the Republican candidates for Congress who actively or silently support his anti-immigrant agenda.
And, in two hotly contested presidential battleground states — Minnesota and Wisconsin — Hmong-American and Lao-American voters can use their sizable political power to defeat Trump, keep families together and stop cruel deportations.
Betty McCollum represents Minnesota’s Fourth Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.