Hmong in Vietnam
A family in a Hmong refugee camp. Photograph by Phillippe Tabbouriech.  Creative Commons License (Attribution, no Commercial, no derivative).

History of the Hmong

In Southeast Asia the Hmong as an ethnic group lived across the northern area of three different countries—Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. The Hmong lived in relative peace with the other ethnic groups of the region before and during French colonial rule, but support for United States’ military actions in Laos and Vietnam during the 1960’s differentiated them from other groups. When the United States military intervention in Vietnam led to armed conflict along the Laotian-Vietnamese border in the 1970’s, approximately 20,000 Hmong sided with the United States army and provided critical aid in reconnaissance and the destruction of the Ho Chi Minh trail (Lynch 2004: 6). However, the United States pulled troops out of Laos and Vietnam, and evacuated the countryside, leaving the Hmong—considered traitors—behind to face retaliation from those they had fought against.  The remaining Hmong in the region fled the hostile regimes of Laos and Vietnam in 1975 to settle in refugee camps like Wat Tham Krabok in Thailand. 

The U.S. government felt an obligation to provide refuge for their surviving, displaced allies. Policy for the first wave of refugees in the late 1970s was to “scatter Hmong refugees evenly throughout urban and rural areas of the United States in order to promote rapid acculturation” (Tatman 2004: 224). This scattering policy had no regard for Hmong clan traditions, and many Hmong opted—for this reason and the hope of one day returning to Laos—to remain in Thai refugee camps. Over time, Hmong resettlement in the United States increased due to closure of Thai camps in the 1990s, better resettlement policy, and rapidly decreasing possibilities of return to Laos.  

Since the late 1970’s when the Hmong began seeking political asylum in Thailand, the Thai government has reduced the services and resources available for the Hmong. In Thailand, the Hmong have recently been seen as a liability to the government. In other countries such as Laos and Vietnam tensions between the Hmong and the post-Vietnam regimes still persist.  This political conflict, although not as violent as in the 1970’s, continues to affect the lives of the Hmong.

Hmong Immigration and Integration in the United States

Hmong Thanksgiving
"A Hmong Thanksgiving" by Aram Armstrong. Creative Commons License (attribution, no commerical, no derivative.)

In the United States, the Hmong population is most concentrated in Minnesota, California, and Wisconsin. Minnesota is considered by many Hmong in Asia to be the most important settlement area, hosting many conferences and dialogues (Culas 2004: 284). Minnesota’s Hennepin and Ramsey counties—including the Twin Cities-reported 1,595 new Hmong refugees in 2005 (Minnesota State Department of Health). In Minnesota, the largest concentration of Hmong live in St Paul; however Duluth, Rochester, and Taylor’s Falls also have large populations (Minneapolis Foundation).  For example, in 2004, with the pending closure of Wat Tham Krabok, a Thai refugee camp which housed over 15,000 refugees, the St. Paul School District prepared for over 1,000 Hmong children to enroll in immediate school year (Zehr 2004: 5). Despite acculturation programs and ties to family members already immersed in American life, newly arriving Hmong refugees still encounter many trials and tribulations in America.

        Of all the Southeast Asian refugee groups, Hmong often have the most difficult time integrating into American society, for their lives in Laos and the refugee camps of Southeast Asia are almost incomparable to anything one could find in the United States Fennelly and Palasz (2003:24) note that the fact that the Hmong recently were a pre-literate group made it harder for them to gain proficiency in English and thus harder to successfully integrate into American society. Once in the United States, many Hmong struggle to find a balance between traditional Hmong culture and American culture.

        Nevertheless, thanks to their large, close-knit families, the Hmong have developed a system of financial support for their relatives that have resulted in high rates of home and business ownership in the Hmong community (Minneapolis Foundation). The Hmong community has also helped to revive economically depressed areas of Saint Paul, such as the University Avenue district (Minneapolis Foundation).

Hmong in the Twin Cities and Minnesota

Hmong children at the St. Paul Farmer's Market
Hmong children at the St. Paul Farmer's Market. Photo by Jordan Sortkin. Creative Commons License ( attribution, non-commericial, no derivative).

In the 1980’s the majority of the Hmong population growth in Saint Paul was from Hmong in America sponsoring family members; previously settle Hmong sponsored fifty-six percent of all arrivals in 1984 (Deinard: 182). During the 1980’s many Hmong families chose to settle in the Twin Cities area because of a program started by the University of Minnesota Agricultural Extension Service. The agricultural service provided over six million dollars in education, equipment, and land to Hmong farmers and their families. Since the 1980’s program support for Hmong refugees continues to remain strong.  

In Minnesota, there are over 1,000 churches that work with the Hmong community to sponsor refugees. Many of these programs support individuals and families by supervising the immigration process from its beginning in the camps to the resettlement process once the immigrants have arrived in the United States. Other popular services offered by Minnesota agencies include employment services and English classes. Some of the most popular Hmong service agencies and organizations include the Hmong Cultural Center, the Hmong Times, and the Hmong American Partnership.

The Hmong in 2006 and the Future

Hmong Girls in Thailand
Hmong girls in Thailand. Photo by Phuong Nguyen, Creative Commons License. (attribution, no commercial, no derivative)

        Since the first wave of Hmong in the 1970’s, the Hmong have greatly contributed to the Twin Cities area by providing diversity and a diligent labor force.  The number of foreign Hmong people living in the United States is estimated at 103,000 (Migration Policy Institute). Although Hmong make up a very small percentage of immigrants in the United States as a whole, the Hmong account for almost ten percent of the immigrants in Wisconsin and Minnesota.  This large population has drawn many new Hmong immigrants from Southeast Asia to settle in Minnesota and Wisconsin.  Although Hmong continue to immigrate to the United States, the majority of immigrants are now sponsored by family members instead of by the United States government. This sense of community continues to allow the Hmong to excel in the United States, where current generations are beginning to find a balance between Hmong culture and American culture.

Subpages (1): Bibliography