U.S. Senator Al Franken (DFL-MN) called together a Hmong Community Forum last week Thursday at Como Park Senior High School in St. Paul, to gauge feedback from residents over the fate of their relatives in Laos.
The meeting, organized with the help of State Sen. Mee Moua (DFL-67) and State Rep. Cy Thao (65A), was about the concern of more than 4,000 Hmong in Thailand, many with refugee status, that were forcibly repatriated from to Laos, the country they fled under fear of persecution. They want to hear more testimonials from concerned relatives that are hearing information from Laos.
Sen. Moua said that the meeting highlighted a change – where action on an issue concerning Hmong Americans – was initiated by their elected officials before it was brought to their attention by concerned groups and individuals in the Hmong community. She said now there is not a need to go through her office or Cy Thao’s office to work directly with Sen. Franken or other members of the Congressional delegation.
“I am just a state senator and these type of international issues are issues that we have to look to our congressional delegation,” said Moua. “Sen Franken and our Congressional members have always stepped up to say ‘hey these are our issues, and we are here for the community.”
Rep. Cy Thao said that a persistent problem has been the general lack of communication between government officials and said the conversation with the community would be useful in connecting people with agencies, representatives and their families. He said the lack of information from the Lao government on the process or the guarantee of refugee safety is key to this crisis.
“I am hoping to hear from people that have been in contact with family members that have been repatriated to Laos,” said Franken, who said he wants information sharing to flow through his office from this community to the State Department, and the governments of Laos and Thailand, and back this way to Hmong Americans.
“We have a lot to share,” said Franken, who is daily contact with the State Department, and together with colleagues is demanding transparency, access and a guarantee for the short and long term safety and wellbeing of the repatriated Hmong.
Franken said government sources report that people are being treated well and have food, water and clothing.
“This is my job,” said Franken said to the community. “These are Minnesotans. These are Americans.”
The last time that a large number of Hmong refugees were allowed to be sponsored by family to the United States was in 2005. The State Department said there would not be another, but at the time Thailand had agreed to take the remaining Hmong.
Now that the situation has changed, Franken said that he would work to ensure that the Hmong that have legitimate refugee status are treated accordingly under international law and will be allowed to come to the United States, Australia or another third country.
Franken said that as a U.S. Senator from Minnesota, he recognizes the contributions for the Hmong American home community and of its support for America during the Vietnam War.
Some guests present said they have heard from family and they report being held in a place without being able to communicate with anyone outside. Others present said they have heard from families through other Lao people who have access to the detention areas.
Franken said this information is valuable and should be presented to people who can use to improve the conditions of the refugees.
Dr. Yang Dao was present and was pleased at the assertiveness of elected officials on this issue, and urged Hmong Americans to work with them directly to channel their concerns through the State Department to the governments of Laos and Thailand.
“Local elected officials will present those issues to the State Department and they will present them to the U.S. Ambassador in Vientienne,” said Dr. Yang Dao.
Sen. and Mrs Franken were introduced by Como Park HS Principal Daniel Mesick. The Como Park HS Jazz Band also performed under the direction of Mike Raskovich, and the Marine Corp Jr. ROTC provided a color guard.
Saint Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and Saint Paul Public School Board Member Vallay Varro were present, as were State Representatives Tim Mahoney (DFL67A), Sheldon Johnson (DFL-67B), and Alice Hausman (DFL-66B).
Representatives frm Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s office and Congressman Betty McCollum’s office were present with letters of support echoing Sen. Franken’s efforts.
Franken asked that people who with concerns should contact his office at 651-221-1083, or 651-221-1016 and leave messages in either English or Hmong.