“Contrary to misinformation in social media, the Trump Administration is not seeking to deport Hmong and Lao non-citizens… We are working to learn more information and keep the community notified of any updates.” — SEARAC, February 19, 2020.
Without a doubt, February has been a month of uncertainty, hysteria and fear for the Hmong community. The widespread chaos stems from the belief of pending deportation of Hmong and Lao individuals. Throughout the weeks of this story, one question kept reoccurring to me, what is the exact policy everyone is reacting to? Even to this day, the policy seems only to exist in vagaries and secondhand stories. As stated above by SEARAC, the panic and reactions were rooted in “misinformation on social media.”
What I find interesting is that SEARAC puts the blame on “social media”. It seems apparent to me that the articles published, social media posts and press releases by advocates/advocacy groups, letters written by elected officials are to blame. They are the ones who are responsible for confusion, panic and disgust at the Trump Administration as they pedaled the narrative of deportation. More than anything, SEARAC’s statement is the complete pivot from the original position — that the Trump Administration is seeking to deport Hmong and Lao individuals.
With all that, I think it’s important to examine how things started, who was involved and look at the possible explanations why it started. So, what I’m going to try to do is walk through the timeline of the last few weeks, look at how things happened and share what the “why” could be. There’s a lot to sift through so bear with me.
As far as I’ve been able to track down, the catalyst for the last two weeks occurred on February 5, 2020 when a picture of a letter written by Congresswoman Betty McCollum was shared by Sia Her; executive director of the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans. The letter written dated February 3, 2020 stated, “It’s 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.”
One question that we need to answer right away is, who informed the Congresswoman?
On February 8, 2020, a Star Tribune article wrote that stated, “Bo Thao-Urabe, executive and network director of the St. Paul-based Coalition of Asian-American Leaders, wrote to McCollum on Jan. 27 saying the proposal would affect about 700 Southeast Asian Minnesotans.” While a NBC news article wrote on February 13, 2020, “KaYing Yang, director of programs and partnerships at the Coalition of Asian American Leaders, a Minnesota-based nonprofit that alerted McCollum’s office about funding for the reintegration program…” As of 2/20/2020 post of the letter has had 393 shares on Facebook. The number of shares that came from the original 393 shares could be in the thousands.
On February 7, 2020 multiple press releases and statements were made condemning the “actions” of the Trump Administration:
Interestingly enough, the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesota released a Facebook post on February 5, 2020 post stating, “We’ve been asked by community members if an agreement is in place between the U.S and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic on the issue of repatriation of certain Hmong and Lao Americans who are legal permanent residents (but not yet naturalized). To the best of our knowledge, the answer is “no”.
From February 8–10, Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) , the Pioneer Press , and Star Tribune all releases articles about Congresswoman McCullum’s letter. The general tenor of these articles can be summarized by a section written from another MPR article — “The Trump administration is in talks with the government of Laos to allow for the deportation of Lao and Hmong immigrants from the United States, federal State Department officials confirmed Monday.”
While I don’t live in Wisconsin, like Minnesota, voices from Hmong leaders and elected officials sounded off, all echoing the same message — denouncing the “deportation” of Hmong and Lao individuals. On February 13 in the Wisconsin legislature, a letter signed by 36 Representatives was sent to nine state Senators. On February 13, Wisconsin Governor, Tony Evers, penned a letter to Secretary Pompeo to “reconsider and reiterate my opposition to any agreements that results in the deportation of Hmong people living in Wisconsin.” This was followed by a letter on February 14 by Members of Congress from Wisconsin urging the administration to “cease efforts to deport Hmong people living in the U.S. immediately.” Back home in Minnesota, more elected the growing voices of opposition. On February 13, 2020, both Senator Amy Klobucar and Senator Tina Smith wrote a letter. Governor Tim Walz followed suit with his own letter on February 18, 2020 condemning deportation negotiations of Hmong and Lao Minnesotans.
Finally, on February 19, 2020, SEARAC shared on Facebook,
“Contrary to misinformation in social media, the Trump Administration is not seeking to deport Hmong and Lao non-citizens… We are working to learn more information and keep the community notified of any updates.”
So, after all the chaos and panic, all of it ended up being nothing.
With SEARAC’s statement it seems all of this has ended up being nothing. With what seems to be some clarity and resolution the remaining question is why? Why did this occur now? Why the overwhelming outcry from specific leaders?
While I’m willing to assume good intent from all who expressed their concerns, I cannot ignore the politics — these are politicians after all, and we are heading into a HUGE election this fall.
From a national perspective, Congresswoman Betty McCollum’s letter was released on the backdrop of President Trump’s State of the Union (SOTU) on February 4, 2020. While the SOTU highlighted many good news for minority groups, particularly record low unemployment and increased wages, the SOTU was received with universal distain by Democrats. With so much at stake in 2020’s election, Asian Americans are also recognized as a key voting group. According the Pew Research Center , this year, nearly 11 million Asian Americans will be eligible to vote. This will account for 5% of the voting electorate. According to exit polls in 2018, CNN reported that 77% of Asian Americans vote democrat. So, it could be an intentional play to secure Asian American votes, particularly in Minnesota where Trump nearly won in 2016 and in Wisconsin where Trump won and is currently on favored to win again.
On a local level, Congresswoman Betty McCollum is also up for reelection. She is being challenged for Minnesota’s 4th Congressional District seat — a seat she’s held since 2001. McCollum’s challenger is Sai Lor, a Hmong American. Sai Lor also happens to be a Republican and to my knowledge, the first Hmong American Republican to run for public office in Minnesota. At this time there isn’t too much information on the challenger or his platform, but what little detail there is, Sai Lor is, “A former Deputy Attorney for the City of Saint Paul” and has 15 years of experience being a lawyer in the Twin Cities.
Now, in Minnesota, there are more than 60,000 Hmong residents. A vast majority of Hmong are concentrated in the 4th Congressional District where according to the US Census, Asian Americans are the second largest population group — second only to Whites. If indeed, the numbers are correct, the Hmong Community make up a vast majority of the Asian American vote for this district. There are indeed political consequences to losing the Hmong vote. On the surface, what seems to be a real concern for Hmong and Lao individuals, lies the undercurrent of political positioning. There are indeed political consequences in swinging the Hmong vote one way or another.
So this is the timeline I could put together and these are my thoughts and my conclusions. At the end of it, cut through the initial noise, cut through the narrative… read, research and draw your own conclusions.