Hmong marriage bill puts activist in spotlight


As the executive director of the Council on Asian-Pacific Minnesotans, one of Illean Her’s primary duties is to advise members of the legislature on issues pertaining to the Asian population. It’s been her advice lately that has brought much criticism from the Hmong community.

During this legislative session, a bill has emerged that would give a Hmong “Mej Koob” the power to solemnize a marriage, in the same way a priest or a Rabbi currently does.

Written by Senator Skoglund, the bill is actually called the “Hmong Marriage Bill” (SF 2403 with a companion bill written by Representative Paymar HF 3674) and is up for a vote in the legislature.

Written into the bill, however, are stipulations that would make the “Mej Koob” a mandatory reporter, meaning he would be required by law to report illegal incidences such as an underage marriage.

Her’s vocal support of this bill as a way to protect children has brought much criticism from the community, including both Hmong legislatures who have criticized the bill as a tool of punishment rather than of empowerment.

Along with a slew of other accusations such as purposefully excluding Hmong board members to join her board of directors, Her sits down with Hmong Today to set the record straight on where she stands and how she is playing her part in improving the lives of Asians in Minnesota.

Can you clarify what role your organization plays in state government and what your relationship is to the governor and the legislature?
The Council on Asian-Pacific Minnesotans is an official state agency that was created to advise the governor and the legislature on issues that are of concern to the Asian population in the state. Technically we do not lobby, but rather educate and advise on policy issues.

Your organization has recently been criticized for not having a Hmong representative on your board of directors, even though the Hmong comprise the largest population of Asians in the state. Can you explain how this is?
There are 19 board member who are appointed by the governor and four non-voting members enlisted from the state legislature (two are from the Senate and two from the House). According to the bylaws, only one member from each ethnic group is allowed to sit on the board at any one time, meaning there can only be one Chinese, one Thai, one Indian and so on. So while there are only 19 seats, there are a total of 42 different Asian ethnic groups living in Minnesota, meaning there will be groups that are excluded from time to time.

It just so happened that our last Hmong board member was at his term limit and had to step down. Nobody on staff at CAPM has decision making powers to place anybody. Applicants must apply through the secretary of state and eventually the governor will make the appointment.

I myself don’t even know who is waiting to be appointed or if there are even applications in at this time. There are currently only 14 members, so we do have room for five more.

What is your stand on the Hmong Marriage Bill as proposed by Sen. Skoglund and Rep. Paymar and why does both Sen. Mee Moua and Rep. Cy Thao oppose the bill?
Actually, the bill came to life after Sen. Skoglund heard Sen. Moua and Rep. Thao back in 2003 when they asked “Can a Hmong Mej Koob solemnize?”

They just want the Hmong to have the same rights and guidelines as all the other religious groups who can solemnize. But along with the rights are also the responsibilities and the accountabilities involved in the process.

My role is to offer advice to the legislature and part of that job is to offer data that is available on that subject. And according to a report released by the Minnesota Organization on Adolescent Pregnancy, Prevention and Parenting (MOAPPP), there is strong evidence to support the existence of underage marriages, teen pregnancy and a link to domestic violence.

I’m not going out there just saying that underage Hmong girls are getting pregnant, but providing data that suggests it’s a reality.

Speaking of Sen. Moua and Rep. Thao, what is your working relationship with them like? Is it hostile, friendly or somewhere in between?
Actually, it’s pretty good. We do have our disagreements, but we do partner on a number of bills, such as the $500,000 bonding bill for the Asian Pacific Cultural Center.

And although we will have our disagreements, such as on the Hmong Marriage Bill, we remain open and willing to work with one another.

How about after this position, do you have any political ambitions of your own?
(Laughs) I’ll probably always be in policy work, but for sure, I have no ambitions to become an elected official. I’ve seen what they have to go through and I’d rather just stay away from it.

I like the grassroots organizing part of politics.