As the Trump administration callously pursues plans to deport 4,716 Hmong U.S. residents, it's important to remember why these Southeast Asian immigrants are here.
They didn't cross the U.S. border illegally. They didn't come here only for a chance at a better job or education. They came because they fought on America's side during the Vietnam War and they and their families were persecuted for that after the conflict's bitter end. Hmong who remained behind still face retaliation decades later in Laos, whose government has a record of human rights abuses.
Sensitivity to that history is sorely missing from the calculations that have led to three agencies of the federal government — the U.S. Departments of State and Homeland Security, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement — to work toward sending so many members of the Hmong community back to Laos. This is one of several reasons to hit pause right now on this push.
Doing so would give Congress and the public time to weigh in and consider measures to avoid this harsh outcome. The 4,716 U.S. Hmong residents have standing deportation orders against them, but taking this final step has not been a priority until now. "We fled persecution, threats, violence and death to be here,'' said Minnesota state Rep. Samantha Vang, who chairs the Legislature's Minnesota Asian Pacific Caucus. "It's a betrayal of our duty to refugees."
How little is known about the deportation plans and the agencies' vague answers about what they're doing is another reason to brake. Frustration over the lack of information was evident in a letter sent Thursday by Minnesota's two U.S. senators, Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, to administration officials. Minnesota is home to more than 80,000 Hmong residents. But, as the letter made clear, the two senators hadn't been briefed on this issue.
A Feb. 3 letter from U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo thrust this issue into the spotlight. McCollum's eastern metro district includes many Hmong-Americans, and McCollum criticized the move as one that "will tear families apart while putting [deported] individuals at risk in a country that has never been their home.''
An editorial writer's attempts to find out more were an exercise in frustration. Questions to the State Department were shuffled off to Homeland Security, then to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Many questions remain unanswered, such as when these deportations would occur, why this step is necessary right now and how those repatriated to Laos would be protected from harm.
What could be confirmed is that the State Department said it is in "constant dialogue" with Laos about repatriating U.S. Hmong residents, with an agreement a critical step for deportations to go forward. The U.S. is also funding an aid program for those who need assistance upon return, a move suggesting how close an agreement may be.
Of the 4,716 with standing deportation orders, 4,086 have criminal convictions, ICE officials said. But the agency declined to say how serious these crimes are. According to Vang and other Hmong officials, offenses can include less serious crimes such as marijuana possession. More serious offenses generally happened when the person was young and lived in impoverished, crime-ridden neighborhoods.
Since then, they've served their time and matured, Vang said, adding that many are now family breadwinners. Parents and children left behind could have to turn to government programs for support, a potential cost that raises more doubts about the deportation plan. Estimates of Minnesota residents who could be deported range from 476 to 700. Many came to the U.S. when they were very young and would have few family connections in Laos.
Minnesota's congressional delegation needs to join forces and halt this push. Deportation is an extreme measure. Taking it hastily ignores the Hmong people's noble history and sends a disturbing message to the world about U.S. loyalty to allies.