Minnesota’s large Hmong community is facing new fears that thousands of Laotian and Hmong refugees across the country could be deported.
Immigration attorneys, advocates and elected officials are juggling waves of messages, trying to organize legal clinics and correct misinformation among a group that felt little reason to worry until recently.
The Trump administration’s proposal has prompted alarm about families being broken up and how Laos might treat Hmong newcomers, particularly in light of the Hmong population’s role as allies to the CIA in the “Secret War” fighting communist forces in Laos during the Vietnam War.
“The community is distraught,” said state Rep. Samantha Vang, DFL-Brooklyn Center. She later added, “The Hmong community is a big small community. … Word gets passed around and you eventually start hearing about those who are distantly related to you who are affected by this.”
Most of the state’s 80,000 Hmong residents are not affected by the proposal, which applies to 4,716 noncitizens nationwide who have deportation orders largely based on older criminal convictions.
The U.S. in recent years has already ramped up deportations of other Southeast Asian nationals, mainly those from Cambodia and Vietnam. Now the Trump administration is leaning on Laos — which is among the countries classified as “recalcitrant” for failing to accept the return of their nationals from the U.S. — to sign a repatriation agreement.
A spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) noted that every country has an international legal obligation to accept the return of its nationals whom another state seeks to remove. Among the Lao nationals with a final order of removal (and who aren’t detained), 4,086 have criminal convictions, according to ICE.
“The immigration laws of the United States allow an alien to pursue relief from removal; however, once they have exhausted all due process and appeals, they remain subject to a final order of removal from an immigration judge and that order must be carried out,” ICE spokeswoman Britney Walker said in an e-mail.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, along with U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, have written letters to the administration voicing concerns about efforts to facilitate the deportation of Hmong residents.
‘Concern is very high’
The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act in 1996 expanded the types of crimes that can make an immigrant subject to deportation, including nonviolent crimes, and applied the law retroactively. Immigration advocates say that many of those affected were low-income youth who pleaded guilty to crimes and didn’t realize that it would affect their immigration status, particularly since the government wasn’t taking much action to deport people back to Laos at the time.
“That [law] directly impacted Southeast Asians who came as refugees, many of whom were resettled in the poorest parts of cities and had all kinds of war traumas and things like that,” said Bo Thao-Urabe, executive and network director of the Coalition of Asian American Leaders. Before the law, “they might have taken plea deals because they were not in a position where they could afford attorneys and things like that, but they didn’t understand that the immigration law would change.”
She said the coalition’s priority now is making sure it helps the community understand the government’s intentions and helps affected families find legal support.
“In many of these cases people have already served their sentences and so they now have families, they have children who are U.S. citizens, and America is really the only country they’ve known,” Thao-Urabe said.
A St. Paul man at risk of deportation, who spoke to the Star Tribune on the condition of anonymity due the sensitivity of his case, said he arrived as a child in the 1980s from a large refugee family. He grew up poor and said he dropped out of high school after being bullied.
He said he became a homeless teen and robbed convenience stores with friends to survive. The man spent several years in prison in the early ’90s and his parents never took him through the citizenship process. He signed a deportation order after leaving prison and has checked in with immigration authorities every year.
“I’m not proud of it, but after that … I contributed a lot and I advanced a lot in my life,” the man said, noting that he got his GED, learned English, attended college, pursued a career and had two children.
He doesn’t speak Lao, have any relatives in the country or even have any memories of it; he spent early childhood in a Thai refugee camp.
“I’m afraid: physically, mentally, emotionally,” said the man, who keeps his curtains drawn at home and fears talking to strangers. “There’s no hope for me. It’s very painful to live like this.”
State Rep. Jay Xiong, DFL-St. Paul, said Hmong residents have left so many messages that his voice mail was recently full. Some of those calling the office are too scared to share their full names or even discuss their situations over the phone.
Minneapolis attorney Mai Neng Moua said she wants to make sure people get the right information; after looking on social media, some people believe that anybody who’s Hmong, or not a U.S. citizen, is going to be deported.
“The concern is very high at this point because a lot of people either they’re directly impacted or they know someone who is directly impacted,” she said.