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Hmong community leaders are scrambling to set the record straight this week after an online post falsely claimed that hundreds of people had been arrested by immigration officials at a popular St. Paul market.
Written apparently as a prank, the post described a chaotic scene at the Hmong Village market as 50 cops stormed the indoor mall, 300 people were arrested and a police K-9 named "Mitch" assisted in the operation.
The article was bogus, but it was made to look like it originated from a legitimate news source. Its posting set off a frenzy, playing on the fears of a very real proposal by the Trump administration to deport some Hmong and Lao immigrants.
While a line at the end of the story, complete with laughing emojis, declared, “You've Been Pranked!" it was no joke to those who believed it and then shared it hundreds of times — including Hmong media personalities on YouTube who reported it as fact.
"My business partner was texting me, 'Is there a raid, an FBI raid at Hmong Village?' and I'm like I don't think so, but I'm too busy to care right now,” said Hmong Village pharmacist Cheng Lo.
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He said he realized it was serious when he came home and his wife began asking him the same questions.
“To me, it's just really sad that someone would do something like that,” he said, “capitalizing off of what's going on in the nation."
The prank posting comes as experts warn social media users to be on guard for disinformation meant to sway public opinion ahead of the November presidential election.
Hmong and Lao people in the Twin Cities might have been susceptible to this prank given the Trump administration’s recent acknowledgment it's negotiating a repatriation agreement with the Lao government.
An Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesperson says there are 38 detained and 4,716 nondetained Lao nationals with final orders of removal in the United States. About 86 percent have criminal convictions.
DFL U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, who represents the large Hmong and Lao communities in the east metro area, said she plans to introduce legislation next week intended to block those deportations.
Given that ongoing threat, though, the phony news story was easy for many to believe.
Titled "Hmong Village Raided by ICE and St. Paul Police," it came with a photo of two uniformed police officers digging through boxes of paper.
The “raid,” however, never happened. As for the photo, one of the vendors at Hmong Village said later he’d taken it a couple of years earlier as police looked into an unrelated incident that did not involve the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement office.
It's not clear who created the article and posted it on the "Channel22News" website, which carries a disclaimer in small print describing itself as a “Prank website that is intended for fun.” The story’s byline credits a “John Young.”
The domain owner of channel22news.com is listed as Korry Scherer. Reached by phone, a man who said his name was Korry but declined to give his last name, explained the process of creating a prank on the website.
"I deal with a lot of dumb people that ask me stupid questions about this type of stuff," he said, noting that he did not write the phony Hmong Village story. "Every social media platform in the world allows people to freely express what they want to express. The difference is they don't police it with none of the discretion that I do."
Whatever the writer’s intentions, Hmong Village merchants say the bogus raid story damaged their business.
People are scared to come to the market right now because they think ICE agents and police might arrest them and send them back to Laos, said one of the market’s owners, Yia Vang. The owners went on YouTube to ease people’s concerns and assure them the story was false.
Michael Thao, who owns an insurance agency at Hmong Village, said he’s fielded calls from California and Wisconsin and from relatives in Minnesota asking him what was going on.
He said he’s been telling them that nothing happened and that people are trying to joke about it now. “You should not be afraid to come on to Hmong Village."