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Massive Hmong Resettlement Underway in US - 2004-08-13

The process of resettling 15,000 Hmong refugees in the United States is underway. They'll travel mainly to Minnesota, Wisconsin, California and North Carolina. This latest resettlement may be the last time Washington will allow such a large influx of Hmong refugees. Thousands fled their native Laos in the last 30 years after Communist forces targeted them for helping the Americans during the Vietnam War. The newest refugees speak little or no English and will need help with many basic skills. That worries local government officials who say recent state and federal budget cuts have already frayed the social services safety net.

This massive resettlement effort is reuniting families that haven't seen each other in decades. One such meeting occurred in June at the Minneapolis/St. Paul Airport where many local Hmong gathered to welcome the first arrivals. Several family members and friends held flowers and American flags. Others chatted nervously as they waited for the eleven immigrants to walk off the plane and into the embraces of long lost relatives.

A mixture of laughter, tears and hugs welcomed the weary refugees from their long journey. They were the first wave of fifteen thousand immigrants relocated from a makeshift Hmong refugee camp in Thailand. 34 year old Xue Xiong says he's waited decades to come to the United States. He says he wants to start working so he can provide for his family. But Mr. Xiong says he's also worried about the difficulties ahead.

There are many things that we don't know, Mr. Xiong says, adding that he and others will need help learning English and navigating how things work in the United States.

Minnesota has one of the largest Hmong populations in the nation. Over the next six months, 5,000 Hmong are expected to join the sixty thousand who already live in the state. That means government officials and others are scrambling to prepare for the new arrivals. But they've never had to deal with so many refugees coming in over such a short period of time. A struggling state economy and recent budget cuts are also part of the resettlement jitters.

This English as a Second Language Class, held in a renovated house, represents the sort of service the new arrivals will need. About 20 immigrants from East Africa, southeast Asia and Latin America are enrolled here, learning basics like office etiquette and how to read a weather forecast.

But like similar classes throughout Minnesota, there are few open seats. While school administrators hope to expand class sizes and recruit new volunteer teachers to meet the demand of the new refugees, they doubt they can handle this massive Hmong influx. Minnesota Adult Education Director Barry Shaffer says the state already has a waiting list for English language classes. "Our programs are trying to open their doors as much as possible, but they are at a facility crisis where there just isn't any space to open any doors, let alone any new teachers," he says.

Others worry that many of the young refugees could fall prey to a life of crime.. since the number of Hmong gangs in the state is on the rise. Illean Her is a former Hmong refugee who now heads the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans. She says more than half of those from the camp are under the age of 18 and parents need to know that their children will quickly adapt to U.S. customs and may be targeted by gang members. "Outside forces are going to fight for our children and these parents need to know that the fight for their children starts right now. It doesn't start once they have a house. It doesn't start once they have a job or when they can start affording to pay for the children. It starts today," she says.

Even if Minnesota gets federal funds to help the new refugees, local politicians and newspapers are hearing complaints about the effect the resettlement effort could have on communities. Some residents worry about tax hikes. Others are concerned about their job security. Many others say social services are already stretched too thin and don't think the refugees should receive services.

But most are generous, saying the community will benefit from the new refugees. Social worker MayKao Hang is a former Hmong refugee who visited the camp in Thailand earlier this year and says the immigrants are ready to work. "They're very hard working," she says. "They've had to work very hard just to survive and several of them have come up to me and said 'How am I going to survive in America? Are there jobs there? Will people want me to work?' And I said 'If you want to work, you'll survive. [OPT] And if you've survived Watamkabuk [the refugee camp], you'll certainly survive in America!"

Ms. Hang says these latest Hmong refugees will adjust to their new surroundings with help from those who preceded them. It's a large, established community that's produced lawyers, doctors and politicians and become a part of Minnesota's social landscape.