Hmong community fears possible deportations

(First published in the February 20, 2020 issue of City Pages)

Local leaders call for unity against a Trump administration proposal that could deport certain Lao and Hmong residents


Ka Lo speaking outside the Marathon County Courthouse in front of a Hmong war memorial erected in 2016.

In 2016 Marathon County officials joined Hmong leaders in celebrating a new memorial outside the Marathon County Courthouse honoring Hmong war veterans who fought on behalf of the U.S. during the Vietnam War.

Last week Thursday, area political officials and Hmong leaders used the same spot to decry a President Trump administration policy aimed at deporting Hmong and Lao immigrants who have been convicted of a crime.

Tricia Zunker, Wausau School Board President and Democratic candidate in the Congressional 7th District race, organized the press conference because of concerns over how the policy would affect central Wisconsin Hmong and Lao families. She was joined by Ka Lo, the first Hmong woman member of the Marathon County Board, and Wausau mayoral candidate Katie Rosenberg. The three called for unity in standing up for their Hmong and Lao neighbors. And Lo in Hmong called on Hmong leaders to join with the rest of the community to stand together, tiv thaiv, against the policy.

“Some in the white community don’t think they have a place in this dialogue and can’t help, but you do have a place,” Lo says. “If these policies concern you, and how it will change our community for the worst, you have a stake in this.”

The Trump administration is in contact with the government in Laos over the possibility of allowing deportations to the country, where Hmong and Lao people had to flee as refugees after helping the U.S. during the Vietnam war. The policy would apply to Hmong and Lao residents who never became U.S. citizens  — about 4,700 people nationwide — who were convicted of crimes.

Wisconsin has the third largest population of Hmong residents at about 49,000 individuals, following California and Minnesota.

Zunker said Thursday that the issue is personal, as she grew up with friends, neighbors and coworkers who are Hmong, and as president of the Wausau School Board which serves Hmong families and students, prompting her to launch the event.

Yee Leng Xiong, executive director of the Hmong American Center in Wausau, says he supported the effort Thursday, saying his organization is especially concerned about individuals who made a mistake once and broke the law. If they served their sentence, that should be the end of it. “They’re being sentenced again,” Xiong says.

Xiong says the center has so far helped one individual concerned about the deportation, but that counterparts in Portage County have seen many individuals concerned about the policy. It shouldn’t be a partisan issue, Xiong says.

In a statement to City Pages, State Sen. Tom Tiffany, Republican nominee in the 7th Congressional District race, said the Hmong people are a valuable part of central Wisconsin with a strong work ethic, and that he would work hard to make sure President Trump understands that. But, Tiffany said in his statement, “Immigrants should come to America legally, and when they come, they should abide by our laws. President Trump wants to ensure our communities are safe, and I stand by that goal.”