Hmong Americans

Hmong American
Lormong Lo
Total population
260,073 (2010)[1]
(0.08% of the U.S. population)
Regions with significant populations
California (91,224),[2] Minnesota (66,181),[2] Wisconsin (49,240),[2] North Carolina (10,864),[2] and elsewhere
Hmong, American English, some Mandarin Chinese, some Lao, some Thai
Animism, Buddhism, Christianity[3]

A Hmong American is a resident of the United States who is of ethnic Hmong descent. Hmong Americans are one group of Asian Americans. Many Lao Hmong war refugees resettled in the U.S. following the communist takeover of Laos in 1975. Beginning in December of that year, the first Hmong refugees arrived in the U.S., mainly from refugee camps in Thailand; however, only 3,466 were granted asylum at this time under the Refugee Assistance Act of 1975.

Hmong immigration to U.S.

1976 and 1980

Initially only 1,000 Hmong people were evacuated to the US. In May 1976, another 11,000 Hmong were allowed to enter the United States. By 1978 some 30,000 Hmong had immigrated to the U.S. This first wave was made up primarily of men directly associated with General Vang Pao's Secret Army, which had been aligned with U.S. war efforts during the Vietnam War. Vang Pao's Secret Army, which was subsidized by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, fought mostly along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, where his forces sought to disrupt North Vietnamese weapons supply efforts to the communist VietCong rebel forces in South Vietnam. Four years later, with the passage of the Refugee Act of 1980, families of the Secret Army were also permitted to immigrate to the U.S., representing the second-wave of Hmong immigration to the U.S. The clans which the Hmong take their surnames from are: Chang (Tsaab) or Cha (Tsab), Chao (Tsom), Cheng (Tsheej), Chue (Tswb), Fang (Faaj) or Fa (Fag), Hang (Haam) or Ha (Ham), Her (Hawj), Khang (Khaab) or Kha (Khab), Kong (Koo) or Soung (Xoom), Kue (Kwm), Lee (Lis), Lor (Lauj), Moua (Muas), Thao (Thoj), Vang (Vaaj) or Va (Vaj), Vue (Vwj), Xiong (Xyooj) and Yang (Yaaj) or Ya (Yaj).

1990s and 2000s

Following the 1980 immigration wave, a heated global political debate developed over how the remaining Hmong refugees in Thailand should be handled. Many had been held in squalid Thailand-based refugee camps and the United Nations and the Clinton administration sought to repatriate them to Laos.

Reports of human rights violations against the Hmong, including killings and imprisonments, led most Thailand-based Hmong to oppose returning to Laos, even as the conditions of the Thailand-based camps, lacking sufficient funding, worsened.

In one of the more prominent examples of apparent Laotian abuse of the Hmong, the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok - seeking to reassure the Thai-based Hmong that their safety in Laos would be assured - recruited a former Hmong soldier, Vue Mai, to return to Laos under the repatriation program. However, Vue disappeared in Vientiane, and the U.S. Commission for Refugees later reported that he was arrested by Lao security forces and never again seen.

Especially following the Vue Mai incident, the Clinton and U.N. policy of returning the Hmong to Laos began to meet with strong political opposition by U.S. conservatives and some human rights advocates. Michael Johns, a former White House aide to President George H. W. Bush and a Heritage Foundation foreign policy analyst, along with other influential conservatives, led a campaign to grant the Thai-based Hmong immediate U.S. immigration rights. In an October 1995 National Review article, citing the Hmong's contributions to U.S. war efforts during the Vietnam War, Johns labeled Clinton's support for returning the Thai-based Hmong refugees to Laos a "betrayal" and urged Congressional Republicans to step up opposition to the repatriation.[4] Opposition to the repatriation grew in Congress and among Hmong families in the U.S., and Congressional Republicans responded by introducing and passing legislation to appropriate sufficient funds to resettle all remaining Hmong in Thailand in the United States. Clinton, however, vowed to veto the legislation.

In addition to opposition to the repatriation by U.S. conservatives, the government of Laos also ultimately expressed reservations about the repatriation, stating that the Hmong remaining in Thailand were heavily involved in heroin and opium traficking. In a significant and unforeseen political victory for the Hmong and their U.S Republican advocates, tens of thousands of Thai-based Hmong refugees were ultimately granted U.S. immigration rights, with the majority being resettled in California, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. The defeat of the repatriation initiative also led to highly emotional reunifications of long separated Hmong families in the U.S. In 2006, the Wisconsin State Elections Board translated state voting documents into the Hmong language.[5]

Throughout the Vietnam War, and for two decades following it, the U.S. government stated that there was no "Secret War" in Laos and that the U.S. was not engaged in air or ground combat operations in Laos. In the late 1990s, however, several U.S. conservatives, led by Johns and others, alleged that the Clinton administration was using the denial of this covert war to justify a repatriation of Thailand-based Hmong war veterans to Laos and persuaded the U.S. government to acknowledge the existence of the Secret War and to honor the Hmong and U.S. veterans from the war. On May 15, 1997, in a total reversal of U.S. policy, the U.S. government acknowledged that it had supported a prolonged air and ground campaign against the North Vietnamese Army and VietCong. It simultaneously dedicated the Laos Memorial on the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery in honor of the Hmong and other combat veterans from the Secret War. In 1999 there were about 250,000 Hmong people living in the United States, living in multiple areas.[6]

While some Hmong remain in refugee camps Thailand, since the September 11, 2001 attacks and the tightening of U.S. immigration laws, especially under the Patriot Act and the Real ID Act, the immigration of Hmong refugees to the U.S. has significantly slowed, in part because most Hmong refugees in Thailand had been engaged in documented armed conflict (even though under U.S. sponsorship) during and after the Vietnam War.[7]

U.S. Census statistics


As of 2009, there are more than 236,400 Americans of Hmong heritage (both naturalized U.S. citizens, and citizens born in the U.S.) based on U.S. Census data from the American Community Survey.[8] States with the largest Hmong population include: California, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, although Hmong communities can be found throughout the U.S.[9] The metropolitan areas of Fresno and Minneapolis-St. Paul have especially large Hmong communities.[10] The City of Wausau in Wisconsin has the largest Hmong population per capita in the United States.

Today, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, 260,073 people of Hmong decent reside in the United States up from 186,310 in 2000. The vast majority of the growth since 2000 was from natural increase, except for the admission of a final group of over 15,000 refugees in 2004 and 2005 from Wat Tham Krabok in Thailand. Of the 260,073 Hmong-Americans, 247,595 or 95.2% are Hmong alone, and the remaining 12,478 are mixed Hmong with some other ethnicity or race. The Hmong-American population is among the youngest of all groups in the United States, with the majority being under 30 years old, born after 1980, with most part-Hmong are under 10 years old.[11] The ten states with the largest estimated Hmong American populations, according to both the 2010 Census, were California (91,224), Minnesota, (66,181), Wisconsin (49,240), North Carolina (10,864), Michigan (5,924), Colorado (3,859), Georgia (3,623), Alaska (3,534), Oklahoma (3,369), and Oregon (2,920).[2]

In terms of metropolitan area, the largest Hmong-American community is in Minneapolis-Saint Paul-Bloomington, MN Metro Area (64,422); followed by Fresno, CA Metro Area (31,771); Sacramento, CA Metro Area (26,996); Milwaukee, WI Metro Area (11,904); and Merced, CA Metro Area (7,254).[12]

There are smaller Hmong communities scattered across the country, including cities in California; Michigan (Detroit, Michigan and Warren, Michigan - 4,190), Alaska (Anchorage, Alaska - 3,494); Colorado (Denver, Colorado - 3,426); North Carolina; Georgia (Auburn, Duluth, Monroe, Atlanta, and Winder); Wisconsin (Eau Claire, Appleton, Green Bay, La Crosse, and Sheboygan); Kansas (Kansas City - 1,754); Oklahoma (Tulsa—2,483);[12] Southwest Missouri; Northwest Arkansas; Washington; Oregon and throughout the United States.[11]

Education and economic status

The 2000 U.S. Census reveals that 60% of all Hmong above 24 years of age have a highest educational attainment of high school or equivalent, as many of these immigrants came to America as adults or young adults. About 7% of Hmong have a bachelor's degree or higher. The lack of formal education among Hmong immigrants is due to the fact that many were once farmers in the hills of Laos or were refugees from war who fled into remote jungles, and had little or no access to schools.[13] In addition, almost 30% of Hmong families are under the poverty level.[8]

In St. Paul about 2,000 Hmong people have their bachelor's degree, 150 have their master's degree, and 68 have received their doctoral degree.[14][15][16][17]

Hmong-American children born in the United States usually have much better access to education and jobs than that which their parents had, and thus have better economic opportunities than their parents would have had in their former homes.


Most Hmong in the United States speak the dialects White Hmong and Green Hmong with about 60% speaking White Hmong and about 40% speaking Green Hmong. The Centers for Disease Control states "Though some Hmong report difficulty understanding speakers of a dialect not their own, for the most part, White and Green Hmong speakers seem to understand one another."[18]


Even though most Hmong families speak a language other than English at home, many Hmong Americans are rapidly blending into mainstream American society. This is causing the younger generation to lose aspects of their cultural identity at a fast pace. To combat this, the Hmong community has set up associations and media that encourage Hmong people to maintain their language and culture. These include the Hmong National Development association and the Hmong Today [19] newspaper. Hmong National Development (HND) is a national, 501(c)(3), not-for-profit organization. The goal of HND is to develop leadership and empower the Hmong American community. HND works alongside with local and national organizations, public and private entities, and individuals to encourage educational opportunities, to increase community participation, and to develop resources for the well-being, growth, and full participation of Hmong in society. There is an annual HND conference which usually takes part during the month of April and is held in a different state each year.

Hmong Today publishes communications products for the Hmong community. These products are designed to provide important information to the Hmong community and to promote unity in the Hmong community. Hmong Today also informs the community at large about the Hmong community. Having a newspaper like Hmong Today creates a way for businesses, organizations, and schools to connect with the Hmong community.

As of 2012, Hmong in California are developing a Hmong-English online translator, in collaboration with Microsoft.[20]

As happened with other immigrant groups, some cultural conflicts arose when the Hmong arrived in the U.S. after the Vietnam War. One of the better-documented conflicts occurred in medicine. Anne Fadiman's 1997 nonfiction book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down documents one such conflict regarding a young Hmong girl's health care. The girl's parents saw her epileptic seizures as a divine gift, whereas Western medicine viewed them as a serious medical condition. The conflict was exacerbated by communication issues and cultural over-reliance on alternative medicine. A language barrier and what the parents interpreted as condescension and racism on the part of the doctors led the parents to believe the Californian doctors did not have their daughter's best interests at heart, and on several occasions believed the medicines being administered were making their daughter's epilepsy worse. Meanwhile the American doctors remarked that the Hmong were being obstinate and were unable or unwilling to follow instructions in medicating their daughter. There is controversy over whether there was true informed consent from the illiterate parents, who often signed consent forms without an interpreter. Although there are issues about its contents, Fadiman's book is often used when studying cross-cultural medicine.[21]

Hmong Americans are fully integrated into the surrounding culture in most areas.[22] Many Hmong Americans serve in the U.S. Military.[23]

At least two Hmong have been elected to high public office. In 2002, Mee Moua became the first Hmong American legislator when she was elected to fill the Minnesota State Senate seat vacated by Randy Kelly when he was elected mayor of St. Paul. She is currently the Senate majority whip. Cy Thao is a member of the Minnesota House of Representatives.

At age 14, Joe Bee Xiong fought alongside American soldiers like his father had done. When their village fell to the Communists, Xiong and his family fled to a refugee camp in Thailand and eventually ended up in Wisconsin in 1980. In 1996, Xiong was elected to the Eau Claire (Wisconsin) city council. Xiong was the first Hmong to be elected to a city council in Wisconsin. He ran for the state Assembly in 2004. Xiong was travelling with family in his native country, Laos, when he died, possibly of heart-related complications.[24] Wisconsin Congressman Ron Kind worked with Xiong to investigate reports of human rights abuses against Hmong still in Laos and southeast Asia and says Xiong was a great community leader and an inspiration to many. Another Hmong, Thomas T. Vue, presently serves on the Eau Clair city council.

In many of the large cities where Hmong Americans live and work, tensions are running high between them and neighboring ethnic groups. Hmong people have often been targets of discrimination, mainly because of job competition and stereotyping of them as welfare dependents. Many of their persecutors justified their actions by claiming that the Hmong unnecessarily took jobs, welfare money, and other services away from long-time residents.[25]

Arrests in California in 2007

On June 4, 2007, following a lengthy federal investigation labeled "Operation Flawed Eagle," warrants were issued by a California-based U.S. federal court for the arrest of General Vang Pao, eight other Hmong people, and one non-Hmong person for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government of Laos in violation of the federal Neutrality Acts and various U.S. weapons laws.[26]

The federal charges allege that members of the group inspected weapons, including AK-47s, smoke grenades, and Stinger missiles, with the intent of purchasing them and smuggling them into Thailand in June 2007 for use in Hmong guerrilla war efforts against the Laotian government. The one non-Hmong person of the nine arrested, Harrison Jack, a 1968 West Point graduate and retired Army infantry officer, allegedly attempted to recruit Special Operations veterans to act as mercenaries.

On June 15, the defendants were indicted by a grand jury and a warrant was also issued for the arrest of an 11th man, allegedly involved in the plot. The defendants faced possible life prison terms for violation.

Vang Pao and other defendants were ultimately granted bail, following the posting of $1.5 million in property. Following the arrests, many Vang Pao supporters had called on President George W. Bush and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to pardon the defendants.

On September 18, 2009, the federal government dropped all charges against Vang Pao, announcing in a release that the federal government was permitted to consider "the probable sentence or other consequences if the person is convicted.” [27] On January 10, 2011, charges against all of the remaining defendants were dropped as well.[28]

Hmong by location

As of the 2000 U.S. Census, the largest Hmong population by metropolitan area resided in and around Minneapolis-St. Paul, with 40,707 people. The following areas were Greater Fresno with 22,456 people, Greater Sacramento (Sacramento-Yolo) with 16,261, Greater Milwaukee (Milwaukee-Racine) with 8,078, Greater Merced with 6,148, Greater Stockton (Stockton-Lodi) with 5,553, Appleton-Oshkosh-Neenah with 4,741, Greater Wausau with 4,453, Hickory-Morganton-Lenoir (North Carolina) with 4,207, and Greater Detroit (Detroit-Ann Arbor-Flint) with 3,926.[29]


California has the largest Hmong population in the United States by state.[6] As of 2010, there are 91,244 Hmong Americans in California, 0.3% of the state's population.

In 2002, the State of California counted about 35,000 students of Hmong descent in schools. According to Jay Schenirer, a member of the school board of the Sacramento City Unified School District, most of the students resided in the Central Valley, in an area ranging from Fresno to Marysville. Fresno County and Sacramento County combined have almost 12,000 Hmong students.[30]

As of 2002, of the Hmong students who took the California English Language Development Test, which measures English fluency in students who are learning English, 15% of Hmong scores at the "advanced" or "early advanced" classifications, while 30% of Vietnamese English learning students and 21% of all of California's over 1.5 million English learning students scored at those levels. Suanna Gilman-Ponce, the multilingual education department head of Sacramento City Unified, said that the Hmong students have lower rates due to having parents who speak little English; therefore they enter American schools with few English skills. In addition their culture was not literate, so Hmong history was not written down and history books did not discuss Hmong history.[30]

In 2011, Susan B. Anthony Elementary School in Sacramento established a Hmong-language immersion program. It is the only Hmong immersion program in a California public school, and is one of two Hmong immersion school programs in the United States.[31]


Kansas is a moderate Hmong population. Kansas City, Kansas was one of the first cities to accept Hmong people after the war.[32] Kansas City Hmong population declined in the early 80s due to migration from Kansas to California, and the Northern Midwest. The population has since stabilized and has more than double every decade since 1990. According to the 2010 Census, 1,732 Hmong people lived in Kansas of which 1,600 lived in the Kansas Side of Kansas City and an estimated more than 400 families and 2,000 Hmong living in the Greater Kansas City Area in 2013.[33] Lao Family was established in Kansas City in the 1980s but the Hmong separated from the organization to create the Hmong American Community, Inc which today is still a functioning entity hosting Hmong New Year celebrations in Kansas City.[34] Kansas City has a vast majority Green Hmong population and is greater than 80% converted to Christianity though more and more Hmong people move in every year that still practices the traditional religion. Kansas City is home to five Hmong churches, multiple Hmong run and owned manufacturing companies, nail salons, small business such as insurance and barber shops, vendors at the flea market, and organization such as Hmong Village Inc, Vang Organization, and Herr Organization just to name a few. Foung Hawj grew up in Kansas City after the war and graduated from The University of Kansas in 1990 before being elected Senator. His father is a retired pastor at one of the local Hmong churches in Kansas.


As of 2011, according to Judy Thao, the director of the United Hmong of Massachusetts, an organization based in Lowell, about 2,000 Hmong resided in the State of Massachusetts. Thao said that the largest community, with 60 to 70 families, is located in the Fitchburg/Leominster area. Thao said that about 20 to 30 families each live in the second largest communities, in Springfield and Brockton.[35]


As of 1999, fewer than 4,000 Hmong people lived in Detroit.[36] As of 2005, Michigan had 5,400 Hmong people; reflecting an increase from 2,300 in the 1990s. As of 2005, most Hmong in Michigan lived in Metro Detroit in the cities of Detroit, Pontiac, and Warren.[37] As of 2007, almost 8,000 Hmong lived in the Michigan State, most in northeastern Detroit. As of 2007, Hmong were increasingly moving to Pontiac and Warren.[38] Lansing hosts a statewide Hmong New Year Festival.[37]


As of 1999, Minnesota has the second largest U.S. Hmong population by state.[6] As of 2001, the largest Hmong population in the United States by city is located in St. Paul, Minnesota.[39]

Pom Siab Hmoob (Gazing into the Heart of the Hmong) Theatre, which is reportedly the world's first Hmong theater group, was formed in 1990. It is based in the Twin Cities.[40] It is now known as the Center for Hmong Arts and Talent (CHAT).[41]

Mee Moua was elected as the nation's first Hmong American State Senator. She was elected in 2002 and served until 2010. She represented District 67 in the Minnesota Senate, which includes portions of the city of Saint Paul in Ramsey County.

The film Gran Torino by Clint Eastwood, though filmed in Michigan, stars five Minnesotan Hmong Americans and the original story was based on a neighborhood in Minneapolis. It was the first mainstream U.S. film to feature Hmong Americans.[42]


A group of Hmong refugees had settled in Philadelphia after the end of the 1970s Laotian Civil War. They were attacked in discriminatory acts, and the city's Commission on Human Relations held hearings on the incidents. Anne Fadiman, author of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, said that lower-class residents resented the Hmong receiving a $100,000 federal grant for employment assistance when they were also out of work; they believed that American citizens should be getting assistance.[43] Between 1982 and 1984, three quarters of the Hmong people who had settled in Philadelphia left for other cities in the United States to join relatives who were already there.[44]


As of 1999, Wisconsin has over 39,000 Hmong people, giving it the third largest Hmong population by state. In December 1999 the Institute for Wisconsin's Future stated in a report that "Given the major cultural differences, language barriers and skill gaps facing the Hmong, a number of Wisconsin's Hmong population have relied on welfare to meet their families' basic needs during this transition."[6] Vicky Selkowe, who served as the organization's project coordinator and the cowriter of the report, said that the language barrier was the main difficulty affecting the state's Hmong population, and their inexperience with the written language worsened matters.[6]

Other locations

In December 1999, according to the Hmong National Development Inc., Chicago had about 500 Hmong people.[36]

Popular culture

The 2008 film Gran Torino, directed by Clint Eastwood, was the first mainstream U.S. film to feature Hmong Americans.[42]

Notable Hmong Americans

See also


Further reading

  • Moua, Mai Neng (editor). Bamboo Among the Oaks: Contemporary Writing by Hmong Americans. Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2002. ISBN 0873514378, 9780873514378.
  • "The violence of Hmong gangs and the crime of rape." The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin. February 1, 2003.
  • "Archive) Wisconsin Policy Research Institute. December 1997. Volume 10, Issue 8.
  • "U.S. Department of Agriculture
  • "Archive) Hmong National Development, Inc.

External links

  • Lomation's Hmong Text Reader - free online program that can read Hmong words/text.
  • Saint Paul, Minnesota.
  • Hmong Studies Internet Resource Center.
  • .
  • WWW
  • Hmong-American Partnership.
  • Lao Family Community..
  • Hmong Times, Minnesota-based Hmong newspaper.
  • Hmong Today, United States nationally-based Hmong newspaper.
  • "D.C. Everest School District.
  • The Critical Hmong Studies Collective. "AsianWeek. September 13, 2008.
  • "Acts of Betrayal: Persecution of Hmong", by Michael Johns, National Review, October 23, 1995.
  • Archive)
  • Hmong Americans, by Carl L. Bankston III.
  • Wisconsin Public Television
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