Posted on July 6, 2004

Romance Of Refugee Story Isn’t Universal

Matt Mckinney and Jackie Crosby, Star Tribune (MN), Jul. 4

It was the romantic vision of refugees fleeing Europe that inspired the 19th-century poet whose words adorn the Statue of Liberty: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

It was the prospect of Hmong refugees by the thousands landing in Minnesota this summer, however, that had William R. Lundquist consider a vision less soaring.

“Who pays for this group . . . ?” said Lundquist, of Bloomington. “This whole issue of immigration needs to be addressed by responsible people who must evaluate our ability to support such irresponsible ventures.”

The romance of the refugee tale, it’s clear, is not universal.

Refugees have long defined America, even as their plight troubles it.

This is a nation of immigrants and descendants of immigrants who fear that too much immigration will ruin a good thing. As the Hmong experience playing out this year shows, people are torn.

Public opinion polls reveal that nearly half of Americans want fewer immigrants entering the country, while 42 percent of survey respondents would allow current levels to remain steady (refugees make up just a portion of total immigration).

Fewer than 10 percent of people polled nationwide in January want more immigrants.

That’s the reality awaiting a group of about 15,500 Lao Hmong refugees living in Thailand who will leave a Buddhist temple considered the last camp of the Vietnam War to resettle in the United States this year. One-third are expected to come to Minnesota.

Newspapers, radio stations and government officials have been queried about the Hmong migration.

Many of those calling and writing have said they fear the wave of refugees will bring job loss, rising taxes and more crime.

A 1997 study by the National Academy of Sciences determined that immigration slightly benefits the economy. The study also said the massive U.S. economy is little moved by immigrant arrivals.

Still other studies from the Urban Institute and Rice University disagree on whether immigrants are an economic boon or burden.

The difference is largely in the estimate of U.S. taxes paid by each immigrant once they live and work here.

Academia aside, a majority of people take the negative view: A Gallup Poll taken six months ago found that most Americans, nearly two-thirds, believe immigrants hurt the economy by driving down wages.

That thought probably inspired some of the letters and e-mails sent over the past few months to elected officials such as St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly, who led a delegation to the Wat Tham Krabok camp in early spring. Kelly said he was not surprised to find angry responses among his constituents’ feelings about the Hmong resettlement.

“This is a typical response to almost every wave of immigration that has occurred in America’s history,” said Kelly, who makes frequent references to his own Irish immigrant roots. “Once we get here, we want to pull the ladder up behind us so that no others can come.”

To respond to mail from angry constituents, Kelly prepared a two-page letter in which he reminds citizens that he is responding to a decision made by federal officials. He also lists the ways St. Paul’s Hmong community has contributed to the city. “Their sons and daughters are now our doctors, teachers and lawyers,” he writes. “They are our owners and taxpayers.”

Kelly’s spokeswoman, Laura Mortenson, said the mayor’s office has received a small number of hateful messages and “expletive one-liners.” The majority of angry mail has come from those who worry the new arrivals will take away jobs from people who were born and raised in this country, she said.

“But once they get some more information and context, many of them will say, ‘Oh, I get it. That makes sense,’” Mortenson said.

Ugly comments

State Sen. Mee Moua, DFL-St. Paul, the nation’s first Hmong legislator, said the feedback she’s received about the new arrivals has been overwhelmingly positive. But the not-so-nice reactions have been “pretty ugly,” she said.

“I feel terrible for my staffers because they really take the brunt of it,” she said. “We’ll hear things like, ‘I’m a white man and this is my country and we don’t need any more of your kind.’ Or, ‘Our state is burdened enough and we don’t need more of your kind to take our welfare.’ Or one person said, ‘I lost my job, I’m losing my house and now my tax dollars are going to help you take my work away.’ There are just a lot of misperceptions out there.”

Many believe that immigrants of an earlier age employed entrepreneurial flair to make their way in the new sworld while today’s refugees, unskilled and untrainable, seek only handouts.

“The refugees who built this country had no fallback, no safety net, no relief agencies, no handouts,” Carol Macris said.

Less help today

A Wall Street Journal analysis found that the opposite was true: Earlier immigrants may have had more help than today’s, not less. A 1911 commission on immigration found that half of public welfare recipients nationwide were immigrant families. The 1990 census, meanwhile, found that 9 percent of immigrant households received welfare.

Minnesota railroad baron James J. Hill also promoted immigration through subsidized transportation from northern Europe in order for newcomers to settle and farm the land along the railroad in an effort to promote his Great Northern Railway. The effort doubled the population of North Dakota between 1898 and 1916.

Today there are some 30.1 million foreign-born persons in the United States, or nearly 11 percent of the nation, according to the 2000 census. About 7 percent of these people came to the United States as refugees, like the Hmong. At the peak, from about 1870 to 1930, about one-seventh of the nation was foreign-born.

Public uneasiness about refugee arrivals has always been more a signal of the economy’s general health, said Macalester Prof. Peter Rachleff, an immigration and labor historian.

“It’s not as simple as it being a backlash to large numbers of new arrivals,” Rachleff said. “It’s much more correlated to the economy and how secure people feel.”

The current period of globalization has thrown the usual economic models into doubt and contributed to a feeling of uneasiness among Americans. Throughout America’s history there have been periods of laissez-faire attitudes toward immigration followed by restrictions that match the ups and downs of the economy.

The immigration restriction acts of 1923 and 1924 turned away hundreds of thousands of people, mostly Asians and Eastern and Southern Europeans, while setting an annual limit of 150,000 immigrants for northern Europeans.

Not until the 1960s and the presidency of John F. Kennedy, whose book “A Nation of Immigrants” provided a glowing account of the immigrant story, were per-country limits removed.

That set the stage for today’s quota system wherein the U.S. State Department has set a goal of granting entrance to 70,000 refugees per year.

The other aspect to consider, Rachleff said, is that the incoming Hmong refugees will live with families and rely on the Hmong network already here.

“I suspect this is going to cost the public sector very little,” he said.

Comments from Readers

From: Howard Fezell

“At the peak, from about 1870 to 1930, about one-seventh of the nation was foreign-born.”

When Emma Lazarus penned “The New Collosus” in 1883 “The wretched refuse of your teeming shore” to which she referred were born in Europe and could more easily assimilate into a population that was both Caucasian and overwhelmingly Christian.

The “wretched refuse” imported from refugee camps in Thailand and the Sudan will never be able to assimilate as did the Germans, Irish, Italians, and Eastern Europeans.

From: Roger

Why are we continuing to import these people? I sort of understood the original influx right after Vietnam fell (even then I’d work to find some other place for them). But now that the war is long over, what’s the problem?

One could cite a plethora of screwed up places on the planet. Does that mean they all get to come to the US?

From: Drew

I’m not buying this stuff about how all of these Hmong are going to be our doctors, lawyers and such. I think most of them are going to cost the taxpayer. I think a lot of them are going to contribute to the rapidly growing colored gang problem. I think they are going to get busy making more of themselves which will mean our property taxes will have to be increased to pay for them.

From: RobertB


The statistics quoted in this article are nearly a complete fabrication.

Statistics from FAIR show that from 40 to 60 % of Hmongs are on some sort of government dole program. Personally living here and seeing them what I see is that the vast majority live in a twilite zone. The only entrepreneurs are those who cater to the Hmong community- most of which are on food stamps. The state picks up their medical bills, the state pays the grandparents to care for the children of their teenage children who get married at age 15 in tribal ceremonies.

Still more Hmongs engage in polygamy and use the welfare system to support their multi-ple families- some even marry their nieces abroad and they are allowed (by special law) to marry first cousins here. The Vietnamese have faired much better- but they look down on the Hmong and shun them. Hospital staff talk of the problems in communicating with them through interpreters- no one knows for sure to whom they are talking. It seems they consult frequently with long dead ancestors as if they are in the room with them.

Of course all of this is not the fault (purely) of the Federal government as the article suggests- it is largely the concoction of the same people who declared St. Paul and Minneapolis to be “sanctuary” cities for illegal immigrants- Catholic Charities, Luthern Brotherhood Services and Jewish Immigration Services. They all also belong to an ecuminical organization which calls itself “Isiah” and runs around demanding “racial justice” for illegals from south of the border.

It seems Minnesota, 86% white in 1990, was just too white.

From: Curt

“This is a nation of immigrants and descendants of immigrants who fear that too much immigration will ruin a good thing.”

A good thing? The richest, most powerful nation in the history of the world is quite a bit more than merely “a good thing.” It was built by immigrants and descendants of immigrants who were willing to assimilate, to become Americans. The new immigrants are not willing to do this; moreover, many of them have a profound contempt for America and American ideals. For multiculturalists, that’s wonderful. They would like nothing better than to have the United States become a Third World country. After all, Third World countries – from where most of the new immigrants originate – are easier to control. They are poverty-stricken, backward, profoundly corrupt and oppressive. And nobody better complain about it.

Despite the machinations of the would-be elite, there is very little brave or new in the Brave New World.

From: jeff jj

Some posters here need to do their work. If you look at the US during it’s first and second waves of immigration, predating the first world war, you will see that there was great strife between the different european immigrants and native born americans. That’s why all large cities had ethnic enclaves, ie little italy, southie, germantown, etc. Widespread assimilation of these groups did not take place in many cases until the 3rd and 4th generation. Many posters also seem to forget that the tent of christianity was a fractious one during the turn of the century. Most native white americans were protestant and most immigrants were from catholic nations, and this difference was the basis for alot of riots and ethnic strife at the time. So before you start talking about the “good ol’ days” where all the immigrants were white and easily fit into American socitey, do a little research.

From: Cassiodorus

“If you look at the US during it’s [sic] first and second waves of immigration, predating the first world war, you will see that there was great strife between the different european [sic] immigrants and native born americans [sic].”

True. Cities back then were filled with violent gangs of Czechs and Poles, who imported drugs, shot each other over gym shoes, and formed gang initiation rituals around raping WASP girls. How fortunate we are to have the Hmong and their civilizing influence instead of those nasty people and their ways.