Updated: Feb. 11, 9:51 a.m. | Posted: Feb. 10, 5:53 p.m.
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.
The proposal would apply to people who are not U.S. citizens and have standing orders of deportation issued against them.
The news surfaced last week after U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, DFL-St. Paul, wrote a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo voicing her opposition to the plan, which could result in thousands of longtime residents being sent back to the country of their birth.
How many people would be affected by this proposal?
The news is hitting some members of the Southeast Asian community hard because of the potential ripple effect that deportations would have on families.
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Minnesota has the largest urban concentration of Hmong people in the country. About 88,000 people of Hmong ancestry and about 14,000 Lao Americans live here, according to the APM Research Lab’s Roots Beyond Race project.
Close to 3,500 people nationwide are subject to removal orders, according data from Syracuse University that goes back to 2001, but community activists say the number could be as high as 4,700.
It's difficult to break the numbers down by state, but the data show that in Minnesota, there are about 476 people with immigration cases who could be affected by these negotiations with Laos.
What do the negotiations mean for Lao and Hmong immigrants living in the U.S.?
McCollum’s office says she’d been hearing from advocacy groups who work with the Southeast Asian community about their concerns with these talks between the United States and Laos. So McCollum sent a letter to Pompeo voicing her opposition.
It appears that the Trump administration is putting pressure on Laos to sign a repatriation agreement similar to what’s already in place in Vietnam and Cambodia.
Countries don’t necessarily need repatriation agreements to accept deportees back, but a formal agreement would make it a lot easier and faster to deport Hmong and Lao immigrants to Laos.
What are the circumstances that would have put people in deportation proceedings in the first place?
Many of the people came to the U.S. as refugees, and some of them committed crimes that resulted in their arrest and ultimately final deportation orders. That means they lost any opportunity to become citizens at that point.
But because Laos doesn't currently have an agreement with the U.S., immigration officers were required to release people within 90 days. So for years, that meant they'd get a work permit and go on with their lives.
But a decision like this would allow for immigration officials to go ahead and deport them.
In the past, this group was not a priority for the government to deport. In fiscal year 2018, just eight people were deported back to Laos, according to the Department of Homeland Security. In 2019, that number was five. Now that these talks in Laos are taking place, Lao and Hmong community members are concerned, whereas before they might have thought they were safer.
How have Minnesotans reacted to the news?
Several community leaders and elected officials have voiced their opposition, including state lawmakers who are part of Minnesota's Asian Pacific Caucus.
While the proposal appears to be an enforcement of an existing law, state Rep. Kaohly Her, a member of the caucus, said it’s worth noting that “these individuals were tried as teenagers and now are being deported as adults despite rehabilitating.”
Her, DFL-St. Paul, told MPR News she has distant cousins who would be deported under the plan. She also spoke to a man last year who pleaded guilty to an offense, not realizing that the plea would result in his order for removal.
“He went on to go to college, he has a family, he has children and he has a steady job that he’s been holding down for decades,” Her said.
In her letter to Pompeo, McCollum cited Laos’ human rights record and said it was “unconscionable to deport individuals to any country in which the U.S. knowingly puts them at physical risk.”
Katrina Dizon Mariategue, director of national policy with the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, said many of the Hmong and Lao immigrants who have orders for removal have already served their time on old criminal convictions.
“Really the system failed them. They were resettled in really poor neighborhoods, high rates of poverty, high rates of crime, failing schools,” she said. “And you see their families who don’t speak English very well are having to juggle multiple jobs and aren't able to really support their children and know what's going on with them. These young kids end up falling into gangs as a means for survival.”
Mariategue also said she's watched deportation numbers for Cambodian and Vietnamese immigrants grow, indicating a desire by the Trump administration to prioritize the removal of Southeast Asian immigrants with criminal records.
What confirmation have federal officials provided regarding a possible agreement?
On Monday, a U.S. State Department spokesperson confirmed in an email to MPR News that the U.S. is funding a reintegration program in Laos and that the two countries are in “constant dialogue” regarding Lao nationals who are subject to final orders of removal.
“The U.S. government’s position remains that every country has an international legal obligation to accept all of its nationals whom another country seeks to remove, expel or deport,” the statement read. “The essence of this legal position has been consistent over multiple administrations.”