Published: 11-01-2012, 09:01

Hmong immigrants

Significance: The Hmong are one of the most recent Asian immigrant groups to come to the United States. Their main home is in the northern mountain regions of Laos. The Hmong and other Laotian immigrants were helped by the passage of the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act of 1975 in their efforts to relocate after the Vietnam War ended.

The Hmong people have no significant history of immigration to the United States before 1970. By the year 2000, Hmong immigrants numbered around 170,000 according to U.S. Census data. When they began migrating to the United States, they were encouraged by various settlement agencies to disperse throughout the country. However, because of their kinship patterns and collectivist nature, they instead tended to congregate within communities where other Hmong lived. Consequently, 89 percent of these immigrants settled in California, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan.

American Involvement with the Hmong

During the Vietnam War, Hmong villagers worked alongside the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in their fight against the North Vietnamese in what has been called a “secret war” in Laos. Their assistance on what was supposed to be neutral territory resulted in problems for Hmong veterans on several different levels. After the South Vietnam capital of Saigon fell to North Vietnamese forces and the war ended, Laos was taken over by Pathet Lao communist forces, and the Hmong were targeted for reprisals because of their support of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia. At risk of severe retaliation from the Lao government, Hmong and other Laotian exiles escaped to Thailand, where they were placed in refugee camps. Upon resettlement to the United States, the Hmong immigrants achieved refugee status largely because of their war efforts on behalf of the Americans as well as their need to escape the communist regime in Laos.

Profile of Hmong immigrants

Countries of origin Laos and Vietnam
Primary language Hmong
Primary regions of U.S. settlement California, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin
Earliest significant arrivals Mid-1970’s
Peak immigration period 1970’s-1980’s
Twenty-first century legal residents* 30,000 (estimated; 3,750 per year)

*Immigrants who obtained legal permanent resident status in the United States.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau.

Immigration After 1975

In response to the plight of Indochinese communities such as the Hmong after the Vietnam War, the U.S. Congress enacted legislation to enable Southeast Asian refugees to come to the United States. Many immigrants from that region were well educated and possessed valuable job skills. In contrast, however, a large part of the Hmong immigrants were poorly educated and were unskilled workers, as most had been farmers in their home country, and other aspects of the Hmong economy were not highly advanced. These factors, among others, influenced group assimilation processes even though American officials and citizens were initially supportive of Hmong migration.

Between 1981 and 1986, only a few thousand Hmongrefugees came to the United States. Admissions picked up between 1987 and 1994, when more than 50,000 Hmong entered the country. From 2004 until 2006, pressure fromhuman rights groups contributed to the resettlement to the United States of an additional 15,000 Hmong immigrants from a refugee camp in Thailand. Afterward, immigration from northern Laos to the United States slowed.

Shaman conducting a traditional good-luck ritual for members of a Hmong family preparing to leave a Thai refugee camp for the United States in 2004
Shaman conducting a traditional good-luck ritual for members of a Hmong family preparing to leave a Thai refugee camp for the United States in 2004. (Getty Images)

Hmong in the United States

Hmong communities in the United States have stabilized. U.S. government estimates indicate that between 170,000 and 186,000 Hmong were living in the United States by 2008. However, estimates from nongovernment sources have suggested that there may actually be between 250,000 and 300,000. About 60,000Hmongreside in the state of Minnesota, with about 30,000 in the Minneapolis- St. Paul area alone. The firstHmongrefugees came from a subsistence and agrarian background, but later waves of immigrants came with some knowledge of technology and Western culture. Overall, the American Hmong population was young and highly urban by the year 2009. In fact, the Minneapolis- St. Paul area has the largest Hmong urban population in the world. The majority of Hmong Minnesotans have already become second- or third-generation American-born citizens.

With a relatively short history in the United States, the Hmong still struggle with cultural identity issues. The initial culture shock that occurred during their first wave of immigration resulted in a slower assimilation rate than was anticipated, even though some younger Hmong Americans adapted relatively quickly. The Hmong have not abandoned their collectivist family structures and this has helped them achieve a level of economic stability. Like those of Vietnamese immigrants, Hmong families often pool resources and incomes in order to buy homes, businesses, and cars.

In Minnesota, Hmong residents generate more than $100 million in revenues annually and entrepreneurs have successfully revitalized the University Avenue area of St. Paul. Even though the first wave of Hmong immigrants was not as prepared to cope with the technologically advanced capitalistic society of the United States, over the years they have become upwardly mobile, a situation that indicates a positive future.

Dianne Dentice

Further Reading

  • Barr, Linda. Long Road to Freedom: Journey of the Hmong. Bloomington, Minn.: Red Brick Learning, 2004. Account of the plight of Hmong refugees during the early twenty-first century. 
  • Faderman, Lillian, and Ghia Xiong. I Begin My Life All Over: The Hmong and the American Immigrant Experience. Boston: Beacon, 1998. Collection of thirty-five Hmong immigrant narratives that emphasizes generational differences. 
  • Keown-Bomar, Julie. Kinship Networks Among Hmong-American Refugees. New York: LFB Scholarly Publishing, 2004. Thorough sociological study of Hmong immigrants. 
  • Mote, Sue Murphy. Hmong and American: Stories of Transition to a Strange Land. Jefferson, N.C.: Mc- Farland, 2004. Another collection of Hmong immigrant narratives. 
  • Parrillo, Vincent. Strangers to These Shores. 9th ed. Boston: Allyn&Bacon, 2008. General treatment of race and ethnic relations with a section on Laotian immigration that emphasizes Hmong immigrants. 
  • Schaefer, Richard T. Racial and Ethnic Groups. 11th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2007. General textbook on American ethnic groups that includes a case study of a Hmong community in Wausau, Wisconsin. 
  • Sherman, Spencer. “The Hmong in America: Laotian Refugees in the Land of the Giants.” National Geographic (October, 1988).Well-illustrated description of Hmong communities in North Carolina and California. 

See also: Asian immigrants; Immigration waves; Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act of 1975; Laotian immigrants; Minnesota; Refugees; Tennessee; Thai immigrants; Vietnam War.