They came to the United States in the 1970s and 1980s as child refugees, members of the Hmong minority in Laos fleeing that country’s new communist government and persecution for helping the CIA in its covert war in Southeast Asia, looking for the promise of safety and a piece of the American dream.
Many of them chased that dream in California’s Central Valley, slowly, sometimes painfully, building lives in a new country where their language and culture were virtually unknown. Largely from poor rural farming families, they often struggled to adjust to a dramatically different society, with few relevant skills and limited support.
But they went to school, got married, bought homes and had children. They built their new lives by working, finding jobs among the region’s casinos, farms and health care providers.
Some among them also broke the law, committing crimes that ranged from robbery to assault. Like others, they served their time or probation. But for some, the end of their time marked the beginning of a new ordeal. Since they were convicted of a felony, they lost their green cards, which signify not only their permanent resident status but their all-important license to live and work in the US.
They were caught in an unusual legal limbo, unlikely to be deported because the US and Laos don’t have a repatriation agreement, but also unable to fully participate in the economic life of the only country they had left. Today they feel shoved aside, a forgotten part of a community that was already largely invisible – the Hmong are one of the most isolated ethnic groups in the nation.
They are allowed to stay in the United States, but many feel like second-class citizens, says Dai Vang, 44, who lost his green card roughly 20 years ago after serving six years for robbery.
“Our green card is our freedom. We are still here. We are not illegal. But our rights were taken away from us,” Vang, whose name was changed because he remains concerned about his safety, said. “It is the grass we walk on. It is the air we breathe.”
Conviction of a felony not only cost them their green cards but violated US immigration law and drew the attention of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The agency detained them, sometimes for years, and legally confiscated their physical green cards.
These refugees have not made another mistake in the years or decades since their convictions, they say, adding that they have paid their price to society. Since they have not been deported they simply want a chance to support their families and contribute to society. Instead, they live in a permanent state of disruption, unclear of their status and future. Without a green card and with a felony conviction, they have struggled to work. Some have managed to navigate the system of one-year work permits, while others have remained jobless, and on the fringe.
Regardless of what they did five, 10 or 20 years ago, making it harder to work does not help them, their families, or their communities, said Anoop Prasad, an attorney in the Immigrant Rights Program at the Asian Americans Advancing Justice’s Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco.
“They are not going anywhere. Would you rather have them working? Or live on the margins?” Prasad said. “They are making it so difficult for these” people.
Their lives were already often difficult. The Hmong remain one of the poorest ethnic groups in the nation. In Asia, they often live in mountainous areas in China, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar and Laos. Often isolated by language and poverty, their voices are rarely heard beyond their communities in the U.S., according to Kao Kalia Yang, author of “The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir.”
They are a largely forgotten legacy of US wars in Southeast Asia from 40 years ago, which sent them to a country where they have little leverage and power, Yang added.
“I don’t think we have been heard,” Yang said. “It is hard to just get to a place where others will listen.”
After arriving, many Hmong refugees had a hard time finding their place in their new country because they were placed in poor neighborhoods – at 31 percent, Fresno’s poverty rate is double the national rate – with failing schools, few jobs, and little cultural and mental health support, Prasad said.
More than 50 percent of Hmong children live in poverty, the Center for American Progress reported last year.
Though the Central Valley is home to a well-known agricultural industry, parts of it rank as some of the poorest in the country.
In Fresno, Vang is among a handful of Hmong who shared their stories of losing green cards, though they say the issue extends deeper into their community. It’s a community they were sent back to without the ability to support themselves and their families, according to Lue Yang, executive director of the Fresno Center for New Americans.
“This is not healthy,” Yang said. “I cannot find jobs for them. I cannot find any support for them.”
Their struggles show a side of US immigration the public too rarely sees. Immigration is not always about undocumented or documented, borders and raids. It is also a system that cannot always react to the complexity of real lives, including ones disrupted by US foreign policy.
Their stories are echoed, in many ways, by those of refugees from Cambodia and Vietnam, and the flood of children who fled chaos and violence in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras in recent years.
The US immigration enforcement system may be designed to deal with drug and human smuggling, says Edgar Saldivar, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Texas, but not necessarily children escaping violence or Hmong refugees fleeing persecution.
Many evenings Blong Thao ends up at the same dusty park just outside downtown Fresno. Sometimes, he watches other Hmong men throw dice from their bright pink, blue and green stools in the corner of the park, other times a pick-up soccer game on the patchy grass field.
Often, though, he walks alone on a beaten track that rings the park because he wants to forget for a while. He wants to forget that he hasn’t worked consistently in 10 years. He wants to forget he spent a month in jail and detention for reasons immigration officials never fully explained.
Thao winds up here after spending most of the day away from the cramped three-bedroom apartment he shares with his wife and four children. He stays away, in part, because he worries ICE agents could detain him again, like they did nine years ago when they took away his green card.
“The fear is with you every day and every night,” said Thao, whose name was changed because he is concerned about his safety. “You don’t know when they are going to pick you up.”
It all began early one morning, when immigration agents arrested Thao outside his house and in front of his crying children and wife. Thao didn’t understand why he was being detained, though he now suspects it was related to a decade-old felony conviction for assault.
Even though he had served his probation and kept out of trouble, he spent the next two weeks in jail in Bakersfield, to the south of Fresno and then another two weeks in detention centers in Fort Worth and Dallas, Texas. Then one day, he was suddenly released, he says, without a hearing, a clear explanation, his green card, other identification, or any money, in Dallas, a city he had never visited, and with no way to get home. A relative wired him money for a plane ticket, but ICE had to send an agent with him to the airport so he could clear security.
Back in Fresno, he spent $2,000 on an immigration lawyer, who told him it would cost more than $10,000, which he didn’t have, to work on securing his green card. He called ICE, but worried that if he went down to its office he could be arrested again.
“I don’t go to ICE because I am scared they are going to grab me,” said Thao, who says he failed one exam for US citizenship, after studying for the wrong test, and never found time to try again amid the crush of work and raising a family.
Thao, who had worked since he washed dishes until 2 am as a teenager, now couldn’t support his family. He came to the US as a teenager, leaving Laos, after his father worked for the CIA in its war against the communist forces that were taking over the country.
“Now, they took away everything, and you are living a nightmare,” said Thao, who added that he felt safer hiding from government soldiers in the jungles of Laos than in Fresno today. “We have no rights at all…We have a broken dream.”
A handful of members of Fresno’s Hmong community tell similar stories, though they say the problem spreads far beyond them.
Dai Vang struggled to find work after spending about a decade in federal prison – six years for burglary and another four years in an immigration detention facility. Once he was out, his parole officer took time and eventually helped him apply for one-year work permits that have allowed him to keep a steady job.
It would have been tough enough finding that job and building a life with a felony conviction, Vang says, but since he couldn’t show potential employers a green card it was twice as hard. He has seen that stress break a lot of Hmong families.
“It was a hard road I took, worse than when I was incarcerated,” Vang, who remains happily married and whose name also was changed for his safety, said. “It has been so long. I mean, if you can’t deport us, give (us) our green cards.”
Even though other Hmong are struggling without green cards in Fresno, and perhaps around the country, Vang says no one seems to care. They are a small slice of a relatively small ethnic group – there were fewer than 300,000 Hmong Americans in 2013, according to the Center for American Progress.
“People don’t care about our condition,” Vang said. “It has been in the shadow too long.”
Practical and Possible Solutions
In the current political climate, it is unlikely Congress would include help for Hmong refugees who lost their green cards in a broad immigration reform bill, according to the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, a national organization that has offices in Washington, DC and Sacramento.
The center is working for a more targeted solution by raising awareness of the problems these and other refugees and immigrants face.
Congress could restore the discretion of immigration judges in cases where people have lost their green cards. Judges lost the ability to consider an individual’s circumstances, such as those of the Hmong, when ruling on whether to take away a green card and deportation in the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility and the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty acts in 1996, said Mari Quenemoen, the center’s director of communications.
Recently, though, more than 30 members of Congress co-sponsored a resolution that supports restoring this discretion, but it remains a long shot in the immediate future because of opposition among Republicans and some Democrats, she said.
“Why do they leave these people in limbo, with no green card?” said Quenemoen, referring to Hmong without green cards. “It is sort of a perpetual punishment the rest of their life.”
Federal agencies and organizations could take smaller and practical steps that could help pull these Hmong men and women out of limbo, according to advocates.
The federal government, for example, could clarify regulations that govern the work status of refugees from Laos who have removal, or deportation, orders, but nowhere to go, they say.
“How should these people…be living?” Mee Moua, who is president and executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Asian Americans Advancing Justice’s AAJC and Hmong, said. “I don’t think anybody has really answered and answered it with clarity.”
Advocacy groups and nonprofit organizations could offer more clinics that help refugees and immigrants navigate the nation’s complex immigration laws. Hmong refugees who lost their green cards can apply for year-long work permits, advocates say. But it’s a technical process, particularly for people who struggle with English. It’s a lot easier to navigate with professional help, according to the Asian Americans Advancing Justice’s Asian Law Caucus.
The caucus has held clinics but usually in larger cities, such as San Francisco. They could expand clinics to smaller cities, including those in the Central Valley, but that would require additional funding.
In Blong Thao’s case, he could hire an immigration lawyer to explore whether he could get his case reopened and apply for a waiver that would get his green card back, though that is a long shot, according to the Immigrant Rights Program’s Prasad.
For now, a more likely and limited solution is that he could apply for a one-year work permit, and receive help with that complicated process at a free clinic, though they are usually held in cities hours from Fresno.
Many of these targeted solutions also would require resources and coordination, and the Fresno Center for New Americans is working to connect with Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Los Angeles and advocacy organizations in the Central Valley. The center is searching for a solution that respects the law and gives members of the community caught in this limbo a clear way to work, support their families and contribute to their communities.
Being stateless can lead people into poverty, and keep them there, because they struggle to secure the right to work, according to a 2011 report for the US State Department.
“We cannot do it alone. We have to partner with many other agencies,” said Lue Yang of the Fresno Center for New Americans.
Stuck in Limbo
Thao remains stuck in limbo. Some days he visits his father’s grave outside the city to talk with the man who helped the CIA in its secret war, a decision that led his family to flee into the jungle, spend 14 years in refugee camps in Thailand, and eventually move to America. At the cemetery, Thao asks: “Why did you bring us here?”
“I told my dad it is all your fault. You joined the CIA,” Thao said. “Now, you take us to the US I can’t support my life. I can’t support my kids.”
He wants something different for his four children. He wants them to have the opportunity to pursue the American dream, a dream integrally tied to the freedom to work.
It is an opportunity he has lost, at least for now.
Paul Nyhan is the senior writer for Equal Voice News. He has worked as a journalist at Bloomberg News, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Congressional Quarterly. He has covered social policy for more than 20 years. This is a special report and part of “The Dignity of Living” series.