Reports that a new Trump administration policy could lead to the deportation of thousands of Hmong residents across the country are generating concern in the Chippewa Valley’s Hmong community.
“It has caused a lot of anxiety with Hmong people in the community and all across the country,” said Kong Pheng Pha, an assistant professor of critical Hmong studies and women’s, gender and sexuality studies at UW-Eau Claire.
The concern stems from a Jan. 28 meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Lao Foreign Minister Saleumxay Kommasith.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum of Minnesota sounded the alarm about the issue in a Feb. 3 letter to Pompeo that she posted on Twitter.
“It has been brought to my attention that the Trump administration is negotiating with the Lao People’s Democratic Republic on an agreement to allow for the deportation of long-time Hmong and Lao residents of the U.S. back to the country of their birth,” McCollum wrote, adding that she was registering her “strong opposition to any such repatriation agreement between the U.S. and Laos.”
The proposal reportedly could affect more than 4,500 Hmong and Lao U.S. residents who are not American citizens and who have committed crimes or have deportation orders against them, according to Wisconsin Public Radio. That could put about 360 Hmong residents in Wisconsin and Illinois at risk of deportation, Yee Leng Xiong, director of the Hmong American Center in Wausau, told USA Today Network-Wisconsin.
“Rule of law and the security of our citizens are top priorities for the Administration,” a U.S. State Department spokesperson told the Leader-Telegram. “The United States government takes its responsibility seriously to ensure that U.S. laws are respected within our borders.”
However, Pha said most of the people who could be affected, likely including some from Eau Claire, are individuals who may have criminal records from long ago, even when they were teenagers, and now are adults with families. Advocates are saying those people have served their jail time and those past actions shouldn’t come back to haunt them.
“These individuals are not a security threat, so it’s hard to comprehend the justification for this policy,” Pha said.
The 2010 census showed that Wisconsin was home to about 49,000 of the roughly 260,000 Hmong residents nationwide, a majority of whom are U.S. citizens. The Hmong first came to the U.S. as refugees in the 1970s to flee persecution from the communist government in Laos. Many Hmong soldiers were allies of the U.S. in the Vietnam War.
News about the Trump administration policy comes at the same time the Wisconsin Legislature is considering a proposal to honor the service of Hmong veterans by designating May 14 as Hmong-Lao Veterans Day in the state.
McCollum called the policy “unconscionable” and criticized it as “a direct attack on my constituents and their family members.”
“Any deportation of Hmong and Lao refugees residing in the U.S. to Laos will tear families apart while putting those individuals at risk in a country that has never been their home,” McCollum continued.
Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse, said he takes the reports seriously and sent a letter to Pompeo asking for more clarity on the policy.
“Thousands of Hmong and Laotian veterans fled to the US in the 1970s after fighting alongside the US in the Vietnam War, and I have personally met with many of these veterans throughout my district,” Kind said in a statement. “With ongoing reports of serious human rights abuses in Laos cited in the State Department’s own reports to Congress, I will oppose the Administration moving forward with any plan that threatens to put any of these individuals, or their families, in harm’s way.”
Pha said deportation to Laos could put Hmong refugees in serious jeopardy.
“Reports out of Laos show that the government is committing human rights abuses against Hmong people there. There are reports of Hmong hiding out in jungles and being hunted,” Pha said. “People are scared and don’t want to go back to a government that will persecute them.”
The State Department spokesperson said the U.S. government’s position “remains that every country has an international legal obligation to accept all of its nationals whom another country seeks to remove, expel, or deport. The essence of this legal position has been consistent over multiple administrations.”
The U.S. and Lao governments are in constant dialogue regarding Lao nationals who are subject to deportation, the spokesperson said, adding that the U.S. is funding a reintegration program in Laos for those who need extra assistance.