ST. PAUL — U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum of Minnesota wrote a letter of opposition recently to U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo after learning of what she said was the Trump administration’s work to deport Hmong and Lao people who are not citizens.
The letter, dated Feb. 3, states that the administration is negotiating with the Lao People’s Democratic Republic on an agreement that would send certain Hmong and Lao persons in the U.S. back to the country of their birth. Those affected include refugees who were not able to become citizens because of criminal records but who have since served their sentences.
“I am writing to register my strong opposition to any such repatriation agreement between the U.S. and Laos,” the congresswoman said. “Any deportation of Hmong and Lao refugees residing in the U.S. to Laos will tear families apart while putting those individuals at risk in a country that has never been their home.”
The State Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment Saturday, Feb. 8, but a news release said Pompeo had met with Laotian Foreign Minister Saleumxay Kommasith in Washington on Jan. 28 to discuss efforts to strengthen the U.S.-Laos relations. They discussed plans for an upcoming meeting between President Donald Trump and the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations as well as U.S. plans for expanding engagement in the Mekong region.
McCollum represents Minnesota’s 4th District, which covers nearly all of Ramsey County, including St. Paul and many of its suburbs. She became concerned after receiving a letter in January from the Coalition of Asian American Leaders tipping her off about a program they said had been set up to receive individuals from the U.S. who have final deportation orders to Laos. No public announcement had been made, but they urged McCollum to reach out to the State Department.
The group told McCollum that they were concerned that some 700 Minnesota residents could be at risk of deportation to Laos.
“The Trump administration has operated under a veil of secrecy,” said Bo Thao-Urabe, executive director of the coalition, “but we were made aware that new resources are being expended in Laos to receive deportees from the U.S., especially those who do not speak the language and do not have families there.”
According to the International Institute of Minnesota, there are 60,000 Hmong living in Minnesota and 15,000 Laotians in the Twin Cities metro.
“Minnesota is now the home to tens of thousands of Hmong and Lao veterans of the war in Indochina, naturalized U.S. citizens who were refugees from Laos, and a small number of legal residents who never received citizenship,” McCollum wrote. “This is a strong and vibrant community that contributes immeasurably to the success of Minnesota’s economy and our quality of life.”
St. Paul City Council member Dai Thao said he was aware of McCollum’s letter and said he’s heard from Hmong constituents who are afraid of being sent back to a country they have little if any connection to.
“They are very concerned,” he said. “They know that President Trump has been unpredictable and is lawless. They know that the Trump administration has been targeting women, the Latino community, the LGBT community, and now he’s targeting the Hmong community.”
Thao said those on what he called “the removal list” should be looked at individually, such as one St. Paul man he knows personally.
“He was placed in the system that didn’t work for him,” Thao said. “His family had trauma coming to this country. If we’re going to tell his story, we’ve got to tell his whole story.”
Thao said the man got into trouble when he was younger. He committed a felony. He did his time, turned his life around, got a job and became a productive member of society. His criminal record and lack of citizenship still haunt him.
“It’s hard to live every day not knowing if you’re going to get deported,” Thao said. “He feels like his life is in limbo.”