The History of Hmong Americans Explains why they Might Decide the ElectionRoundup
tags: Vietnam War, Minnesota, refugees, Southeast Asia, Asian American History, Hmong
Melissa Borja is assistant professor at the University of Michigan. Her book, Follow the New Way: Hmong Refugee Resettlement and the Practice of American Religious Pluralism, will be published by Harvard University Press.
As Election Day nears, all eyes are on the Upper Midwest, where a trio of swing states — Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan — are expected to play a pivotal role in determining who wins the presidency. In these states, where the margin of victory in 2016 was merely a few votes per precinct, campaigns fighting for every vote have expanded their outreach to Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, who represent the fastest-growing racial and ethnic group of eligible voters in the United States.
Although historically overlooked, AAPI voters have been in the spotlight this election season, in part because Sen. Kamala D. Harris, the daughter of Indian and Jamaican immigrants, is the first AAPI candidate on a major ticket as the vice-presidential candidate alongside Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. Across the country, campaigns have made energetic efforts to engage AAPI voters. The group Asian Americans Against Trump, for example, has sponsored commercials in Mandarin and Korean in battleground states, and the Biden campaign recently released an ad featuring David Bautista, a Filipino American wrestler and actor.
But political observers would be wise to pay special attention to one AAPI group: Hmong Americans. Despite the relatively modest size of their population — approximately 310,000 as of 2017 — Hmong Americans could have an outsized impact on the outcome of the 2020 election. Their political importance is partly tied to geography. Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan are home to approximately 121,000 Hmong Americans, who resettled in the United States as refugees beginning in the 1970s. In Minnesota, where Hmong Americans account for 83,000 voters, President Trump lost in 2016 by less than 45,000 votes.
In Wisconsin, where Hmong Americans account for 51,000 voters, Trump won by 23,000 votes. “We are the state’s margin of victory,” Yee Leng Xiong of the Hmong American Center in Wausau told Wisconsin Public Radio.
Just as important is the fact that Hmong Americans are particularly active in politics. As the political scientist Carolyn Wong argued in “Voting Together,” Hmong Americans today participate in politics at higher levels than other Asian ethnic groups in the United States. According to the 2012 National Asian American and Pacific Islander Post-Election Survey, 89 percent of Hmong Americans turned out to vote in 2012 and surpassed the rate of almost every other AAPI group. As a result, Hmong American voters are an underappreciated political powerhouse who have long shaped elections in Minnesota and Wisconsin and could now wield influence on a national scale.
A wave of Hmong refugees arrived in the United States in 1976, after fighting as U.S. allies during “the Secret War” in Laos. They were part of approximately one million Southeast Asian refugees who were resettled in the United States throughout the last quarter of the 20th century following its war in Vietnam and southeast Asia.
But refugee resettlement was unpopular with the American public. A May 1975 national Gallup poll found that only 36 percent of Americans surveyed favored the resettlement of Southeast Asian refugees; 54 percent opposed it. The Southeast Asian refugee crisis occurred at a moment when the country was contending with a sluggish economy and an array of social and political troubles, which intensified public wariness of refugees. Government officials organizing Southeast Asian refugee resettlement thus faced the unenviable task of undertaking a project that the majority of Americans did not support.
Eager to prevent public backlash, resettlement officials centered their plans on a basic goal: to minimize the impact that Southeast Asian refugees might have on the communities where they were resettled. As Rep. Hamilton Fish put it during congressional hearings in May 1975, their strategy was to ensure that Southeast Asian refugees “would not be very noticeable.”
To this end, the federal government pursued a policy of dispersal. By scattering Southeast Asian refugees across the country, resettlement planners aimed to promote cultural assimilation, prevent the formation of ethnic enclaves and distribute refugees evenly so that the cost of resettling refugees would be fairly shared. As a result of the dispersal policy, Hmong refugees were initially resettled in a variety of places, especially across the Midwest — and not just in states like California and New York that were historically the most popular destinations for newly arrived migrants.
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