Sen. Tammy Baldwin meets with Hmong community leaders in this 2018 photo from her Facebook page
Sen. Tammy Baldwin meets with Hmong community leaders in this 2018 photo from her Facebook page

Some face expulsion even if crimes committed long ago were followed with exemplary lives

A proposal to deport more than 4,500 Hmong and Lao immigrants who currently reside in the U.S. to the country of their birth would place them in danger and could put their lives at risk, said Sen. Tammy Baldwin. 

President Trump’s administration is negotiating with government officials in Laos seeking an agreement that would allow the U.S. government to deport certain Hmong and Lao refugees. The proposal is directed at refugees who have been unable to become citizens because of their criminal records, even if they have lived exemplary lives for years afterward.   

Baldwin, D-Wisconsin, expressed concerns about the plan, saying it would return Hmong residents from Wisconsin to a country with a history of discriminating against them and to a place where they have no connection, having fled as children. Hmong soldiers fought with U.S. armed forces in the Vietnam War. When American forces pulled out of Vietnam in April 1975, Communist North Vietnamese soldiers swept through the region, imprisoning and killing the Hmong and others who had assisted the U.S. military effort there.

“There is a long and dark history of human rights violations by the Communist government of Laos against the Hmong, and I am deeply concerned that the Trump administration would tear families apart in Wisconsin and target Hmong and Lao refugees residing in our state,” Baldwin said. “Wisconsin has a special bond with the Hmong community and it is my hope that this administration will stop its plan to break this bond with my constituents.”

The issue of Hmong and Lao immigrants being deported garnered headlines after U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minnesota, wrote a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo opposing the plan, saying it would be “unconscionable to deport individuals to any country in which the U.S. knowingly puts them at risk.”

Hmong and Lao people facing possible deportation have served time for their crimes, Hmong leaders and other advocates said, and many have become productive members of society. Many who face potential deportation were at-risk teens and became involved in gangs or other illicit behavior as a means of protection “and a way to fit in,” said Yee Leng Xiong, director of the Hmong American Center in Wausau.

“So many of these people have not lived a lifetime of crime,” Xiong said. “People made mistakes and served their sentence. Many have become contributing members of our society.”

The Trump administration apparently is pressuring government officials in Laos to sign a repatriation agreement similar to those in Vietnam and Cambodia. Countries do not necessarily need repatriation accords to accept those who are deported, but a formal agreement would make it easier to send Hmong and Lao immigrants to Laos.

The number eligible for deportation as part of the proposal represents a small portion of the Hmong population in the U.S. Roughly 49,000 Hmong people live in Wisconsin and about 300,000 live in the U.S., according to U.S. Census figures. The majority of them are U.S. citizens.

How many Wisconsin Hmong residents could be impacted by the deportation plan remains uncertain, but some estimates place that number at about 300. Minnesota has the largest urban Hmong settlement in the U.S., at about 88,000. The state also is home to about 15,000 Lao people. In that state about 476 people with immigration cases could be affected by deportation negotiations. 

Hmong leaders and community activists in Wisconsin are speaking against the deportation plan. Sending people to a nation with a history of violence against Hmong and Lao people places them in danger and is unethical, they said.

“Without a doubt, we are very concerned about the safety of anyone who would be sent (to Laos),” Xiong said. “Given the history there, and the persecution against Hmong people, it is potentially dangerous for individuals who would be sent there.”

Many of the people who would be impacted by potential deportation are green card holders, people who are legal, permanent residents but not U.S. citizens, Xiong said. Most are now in their 20s and 30s and arrived in this country as young children during refugee resettlements in the 1980s and ’90s, he said, and have few connections to the country where they were born.

Hmong communities tend to be especially close-knit, Xiong said, in part because of their clan structure. Because of that, the relocation of Hmong members to another country would be especially disruptive, he said. 

News of possible deportations has prompted concerns in the Eau Claire area, home to more than 3,000 Hmong residents. The Hmong community has many questions about the proposal and who could be impacted, said Vincent Xiong, executive director of the Eau Claire Hmong Mutual Assistance Association.

“Right now our community leaders are really trying to figure this out,” Vincent Xiong said, noting he has had conversations with local and state government leaders about the possible deportations. “Our community has a lot of questions about this, a lot of concerns. Before we make a statement we need to figure out what this means and who would be impacted. We don’t want people to start panicking.” 

Eau Claire County Board Supervisor Zoe Roberts decided to get involved on behalf of Hmong residents facing possible deportation. She proposed the county’s Judiciary and Law Enforcement Committee vote on an advisory measure urging the state Legislature to enact legislation protecting Hmong immigrants and others of non-Caucasian descent from deportation. 

That measure was not added to the committee’s agenda, Roberts said, because county officials want to learn more about the deportation issue before taking it up. The committee may discuss the measure at a future meeting, she said.

President Trump has disparaged marginalized groups since his election in 2016, Roberts said, “and to see that happen to friends of mine, people that haven’t done anything wrong but will be affected by his cruelty, is deeply concerning.”

Vincent Xiong said he and other Hmong community members hope to learn more details about the proposed deportation measure soon. He is working with Eau Claire community leaders and state government officials to set up a meeting to discuss the issue.

“We want to learn more about this,” he said, “and then we can decide what action to take.”