MADISON, Wis. – The local Hmong community is worried thousands of residents are at risk of deportation nationwide following reports that the Trump administration is in talks with Laos.
The State Department has confirmed to news outlets that the administration is asking Laos to accept deported U.S. residents. The proposal would apply to those who aren’t U.S. citizens but have standing orders of deportation.
At about 50,000 people, Wisconsin has one of the largest Hmong populations in the country, with about 4,000 in Dane County, according to 2010 Census data. Many came to the country as refugees starting in the 1970s after assisting the U.S. in the Vietnam War.
Kabzuag Vaj, co-executive director of Freedom, Inc., said she already knows of about 10 families who could be impacted in Madison.
“It would be devastating for communities,” Vaj said. “It would cause chaos, create a new experience of PTSD in addition to us being war survivors and refugees.”
She said her family’s world was turned around when they were forced to flee Laos, saying that her father had been a military officer there assisting the CIA when she was a child.
For years, Vaj said her family lived in a refugee camp before settling on Madison’s south side.
“My mom was a single mom, unable to provide for us because she didn’t speak the language,” Vaj said. “She worked two to three jobs.”
Now decades later, she said her community is shaken up again with news that many immigrants might get sent back.
“I have family members with final orders of deportation,” Vaj said. “Our story is similar to many, many other of the Southeast Asian family stories.”
Syracuse University data shows at least about 3,500 people across the country are subject to removal orders to Laos. Although the data isn’t easily broken up into states, it indicates about 300 people in the Chicago immigrant court jurisdiction, which encompasses Wisconsin, could be affected by the new negotiations.
“If you have final orders of deportation, you would know,” Vaj said, adding that those with deportation orders who committed crimes have served their time.
“Many were young adults,” she said. “I think they were trying to survive the country.”
Vaj said for those who aren’t citizens but have clean records, the fear of committing even a misdemeanor and being deported now feels more real.
“The Hmong community is in shock about this whole thing,” said Zang Vang, a public relations official with the Wisconsin Hmong Association.
Vang said many in his community don’t have citizenship because of cost and language barriers and those deported would face challenges in Laos when many don’t speak the country’s language.
“The Hmong people came as refugees,” he said. “The reason we came to the U.S. is we have no choice. In our country, we are regarded as the enemy.”
Vaj is concerned about those who stay in the U.S. whose worlds would be changed, as well.
“It’s going to tear families apart,” she said. “I’m concerned about the mental health of the community.”
Freedom, Inc. is working to provide families who may be effected with resources. The group’s website can be found here.
Wisconsin senators are responding to the negotiations with Laos.
“In many ways, the idea of deporting someone to a country they’ve never been, that they don’t speak the language, when we have a special long term relationship in a state like Wisconsin too, these families most of whom had members of their family fight with us in the Vietnam War … this would be a big mistake on the part of the Trump administration,” Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D) said.
In a statement, Sen. Ron Johnson (R) wrote, “I urge the Trump administration to act carefully and judiciously to ensure law-abiding Hmong in the United States legally are treated fairly. The Hmong community is an important part of the fabric of Wisconsin.”