Curt Brown, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Feb. 23
The St. Paul grocery store was only two blocks away, but Paul Kong remembers his parents were so scared in 1976 that they would wait days for their church sponsors to take them shopping. Kazoua Kong-Thao recalls how kids in school that year asked if she was Chinese or Japanese and she had no idea what they were talking about.
Clearly, times have changed.
Kong is an insurance salesman and the new president of the Hmong 18 Council, a non-profit mediation service. Kong-Thao was elected to the St. Paul School Board last fall.
And when the newest group of Hmong emigres start arriving in Minnesota this summer, they will find Hmong grocery stores, Hmong school teachers, Hmong legislators, Hmong mental health advocates, Hmong clothing shops, Hmong language signs in government buildings and Hmong groups offering everything from English to soccer tournaments.
But Minnesota-bound resettlers from the Wat Tham Krabok settlement camp in Thailand also will find entrenched Hmong gangs with histories of teen prostitution and rape.
They will find school districts laying off teachers and shuttering schools, a housing crunch and money-drained social service agencies reeling from budget cuts.
There will be warm welcomes as families reunite, but there also will be a backlash from people who have e-mailed public officials and punctuated town hall meetings with “we don’t need any more of those people coming to my country” sentiments.
“The community is much more organized than when we first arrived, but that is both good and bad because criminal gangs are organized, too, so we need to be really vigilant when we used to be just scared,” said Ilean Her, executive director of the state Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans.
Yet, Hmong activists are optimistic about the prospects of their soon-to-arrive relatives.
“People who come today will not face the same hardships we did,” said Xang Vang, director of the Hmong American Mutual Assistance Association in Minneapolis, who came to the United States in the late '70s. “They should do very well sooner than we did.”
In a bureaucratic sense, little has changed from the first Hmong migration to the upcoming resettlement. Large faith-based charities such as Lutheran Social Service and Catholic Charities will again contract with the State Department to serve as sponsors. An estimated $800 per emigre will flow from the federal government through these agencies to help with basic resettlement needs for the first few months, according to Pam Lewis, a State Department immigration expert.
She said that money is not a special allocation for Wat resettlement, but money set aside for annual refugee aid. She said at least $400 of each $800 is required to go directly to the newcomer while the sponsoring agency can keep $400 for administrative costs.
Only relatives coming
Unlike the earlier resettlement, when faith-based groups would sponsor Hmong strangers, this time only emigres with relatives in Minnesota are eligible.
“Because of the lack of affordable housing, only family reunifications are now allowed,” said Patti Hurd, a refugee services director at Lutheran Social Services.
Hurd was among 75 people at a recent meeting of the Wat Resettlement Working Group, a panel convened by U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum to address issues such as educational needs, mental health concerns and job training.
Although most experts agree that the transition should be easier for this generation of Hmong immigrants, concerns exist in many corners, ranging from schools to police precincts.
Mo Chang, a special projects director for the St. Paul school district, said despite lean budgets, “we are ready because we understand how to teach English” to those who don’t speak it after years of doing so. But Chang said the district might have to expand its Language Academy program aimed at non-English speaking students.
Her, who will join Chang and Kong-Thao on St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly’s trip to the Wat on Friday, is also confident that St. Paul and Minneapolis schools have the expertise to train new students who don’t speak English.
“My concern is that our people are becoming so spread out and moving to places such as Woodbury and Brooklyn Park, that when their relatives move in with them, I wonder if those suburban school districts will be ready for the influx,” Her said.
The State Department estimates that more than half of the 1,500 Wat immigrants expected to come to Minnesota will be children. Kids in Wat can go to school, but only until they’re 12. After that, they are not allowed to compete with Thai teens for higher education opportunities.
St. Paul Police Cmdr. John Harrington, among others, is concerned that teenagers who haven’t been in school will be vulnerable to Asian gang recruitment when they arrive.
“You take a 14-year-old girl who is going from a place with no school or running water to a place where people are inviting her to a party, and issues of juvenile prostitution and gang recruitment are a concern,” Harrington said.
Patrick Henry High School in Minneapolis is the first to form a Wat refugee welcome committee, with student mentors set to ease the transition and isolation new students might face. Officials hope other schools will follow that lead.
“It’s incumbent on the community to be strong, unified and supportive because budgets are under a lot of strain,” McCollum said.
State Sen. Mee Moua, DFL-St. Paul, keeps a log of calls and e-mails that reflect the not-so-unified-and-supportive slice of the community. One woman from her East Side district, for example, acknowledges some bias because her brother died in the Vietnam War trying to help keep Hmong free from Communists. Her four-page e-mail questions everything from the large size of Hmong families to rumors that they can live here tax-free for five years.
“I asked the Revenue Department for a letter to dispel that misperception and I circulate it when it comes up,” said Moua, the nation’s first Hmong elected to state office.
Moua said she understands the roots of some of the anti-Hmong immigration feelings she’s encountered in the community.
“The non-Hmong people in Minnesota are fragile right now because of the economic conditions and job loss,” Moua said. “They are feeling fiscally vulnerable and elected officials are hearing plenty of ‘this is my country, we don’t need any more of those people.’ “
Moua thinks some of that animosity comes from early estimates of 14,000 Wat residents heading to Minnesota — a number that has decreased to about one-tenth of that amount.
“I think there was a misperception that thousands and thousands of people were coming,” Moua said. “It’s important we not blow things out of proportion because that evokes an atmosphere in which good people have thoughts and feelings they might regret at a later date.”