Hmong and Lao Refugees Face Deportation Threats Amidst Repatriation Negotiations
Hmong and Lao immigrants face imminent family separation as the Trump administration increases pressure on Laos to accept deported U.S. residents.
By Amber Nguyen
The United States dropped more than 2 million tons of bombs and artillery on hundreds of thousands of Lao civilians between 1964 and 1973 during the Vietnam War. That is roughly equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes for 24 hours a day for 9 years. A portion of the bombs (up to an estimated 80 million) did not detonate and remain a danger to the local community — killing or injuring over 20,000 people.
Despite the dangers, today the U.S. government is putting major effort into deporting many Hmong, lu Mien, Lao, and other Laotian ethnic minorities. The Lao government has not wanted to accept deportees who do not want to return, but the U.S. has been secretly pressuring Laos to establish a repatriation agreement. The U.S. is also funding a reintegration program, which would make it easier and faster to deport Hmong and Lao refugees. Katrina Dizon Mariategue, Director of National Policy at Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC), explains that “since a program like this would likely be focused on things like language training, we are fearful that this makes refugees who have not lived in Laos for a long time more susceptible to targeting [for deportations].”
Remembering a Tragic Era
Today marks the 45th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War, during which the Hmong and Lao sacrificed their lives to fight alongside the U.S. against the Viet Cong. After the Communist government rose to power, those Hmong and Lao fighters were forced to flee their home countries. The Laos government slaughtered over 17,000 members of the secret Hmong army, as well as 50,000 civilians for supporting the United States. More than 40,000 Hmong alone fled Laos desperately trying to save their lives.
In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the need for U.S. policy change became apparent as hundreds of thousands of Southeast Asian refugees fled political chaos and physical danger in their homelands. Congress passed the Refugee Act of 1980, which established a more firm and organized immigration and resettlement system. Speaking loudly to our values of freedom, the Act defined a “refugee” as a person who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her home country because of a “well-founded fear of persecution” due to race, membership in a particular social group, political opinion, religion, or national origin.
The mass relocation marked Southeast Asian Americans as the largest refugee community in U.S. history. Many refugees were later able to reunite with family members by sponsoring them for visas.
However, 45 years after the Fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War, America is putting these political refugees and their families back in harm’s way, backtracking on the very values we enacted into U.S. law in 1980. Since 1998 the U.S. has ordered more than 14,000 Southeast Asians removed (deported) from the U.S.
“Who is the Trump administration targeting now?”
Hmong and Lao communities are at risk under the proposed immigration policies, which target Southeast Asian populations for deportation.
An ICE spokeswoman has specified there are 4,716 non-detained Lao nationals with final orders of removal.
Dai Thao, a St. Paul, Minnesota City Council member, has spoken on behalf of Hmong constituents who fear being sent back to a country to which they have no connection. Thao shared the story of a Hmong community member who committed a felony when he was younger, but after serving his sentence turned his life around. “He feels like his life is in limbo,” Thao said. “It’s hard to live every day not knowing if you’re going to get deported.” Thao also referenced the trauma that his parents experienced, which likely contributed to his and many other refugees’ entanglement with law enforcement.
Unfortunately, such fears among the Southeast Asian community are not new. Like the St. Paul Hmong man, many Southeast Asians grew up in the U.S., consider this country their home, and suffer immense anxiety about being exiled to a place with which they share little to no linguistic or cultural connections. Deportation means separation from family and their only home. These fears echo within Southeast Asian communities across the country.
Read this blog to learn more about the mass criminalization and incarceration of our community members, as well as the stories of directly impacted Southeast Asian Americans.
In solidarity with Hmong and Lao refugees, Senator Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin stated, “I am deeply concerned that the Trump administration would tear families apart in Wisconsin and target Hmong and Lao refugees residing in our state. 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…”
“How do we move forward?” With The New Way Forward Act!
Because many immigrants came to the U.S. as refugees and are lawful permanent residents who have not yet naturalized, they are extremely vulnerable in our immigration system if they commit a crime or are arrested. Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC supports the New Way Forward Act, which offers a humane solution to our long history of criminalizing migration. The New Way Forward Act would repeal much of the aforementioned 1996 immigration laws that lead to the mass detentions and deportations of immigrants nationwide.
As the New Way Forward Act’s lead co-sponsor, Representative Chuy Garcia calls for us to stand united in support of the families who have been harmed by harsh immigration policies. When explaining the bill, Rep. Garcia has stated, “Imagine living with the constant fear of being detained anywhere and deported at any time simply because you fled violence and sought refuge in the U.S… [T]he New Way Forward Act [will] disrupt the prison to deportation pipeline, give all immigrants the dignity of due process, and ensure America remains a nation that welcomes all.”
By supporting the New Way Forward Act, we can begin to combat the harmful immigration policies that perpetuate the mass incarceration of our communities and build towards a nation that protects and values all its members.
- Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC), in partnership with Advancing Justice | AAJC, Asian Americans Advancing Justice | Asian Law Caucus, and Asian Americans Advancing Justice | Atlanta and other organizations, break down the threats facing Hmong and Lao Americans.
- If you or someone you know is seeking legal assistance, please visit the Southeast Asian Raids website by our affiliate, Advancing Justice | ALC. This website shares important information and resources for Southeast Asian refugees who are facing deportation to Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos. You may also call (415) 952–0413 for free legal advice.
- For more resources and background information, you may also access this Resource Guide for Southeast Asian Americans Facing Criminal Deportation and this Southeast Asian American Solidarity Toolkit from SEARAC.
Amber Nguyen was a recent Policy Intern at Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC.