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.
The resettlement of Hmong refugees in the Midwest also owed a part to the public-private system of refugee care in the United States. The federal government relies on private voluntary agencies to do much of the work of resettling refugees. In turn, these voluntary agencies, most of which are religiously affiliated, often rely on local congregations to sponsor and initially support refugees. In the 1970s and 1980s, churches sponsored thousands of Hmong refugees, often in the Midwest. (In the 2008 film “Gran Torino,” Clint Eastwood asked a Hmong girl why she lived in Michigan. “Blame the Lutherans,” she said. The joke was funny because it was true.)
Thousands of Hmong refugees thus made their initial homes in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, where this first group of refugees served as the nucleus for a thriving community that grew substantially in subsequent decades. By 1985, 8,500 Hmong Americans lived in the Twin Cities. New refugees continued to arrive from Asia, as Hmong refugees sponsored their relatives for resettlement throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
In addition, thousands of Hmong refugees who had been resettled elsewhere in the United States began to migrate to the Midwest. The government’s plan to disperse refugees and prevent ethnic enclaves was ultimately upended by the fact that Hmong people resisted family separation and cultural isolation. Eager to reunite with relatives and their ethnic community, they flocked to cities like St. Paul and Minneapolis, where Hmong American communities flourished. There, Hmong Americans established their own businesses, ethnic organizations, churches, advocacy groups and cultural and educational institutions to serve the specific needs of the growing Hmong population.
Unlike some migrants, refugees have a path to citizenship, which Hmong Americans have embraced at higher rates than most AAPI groups. Today, 92 percent of Hmong Americans are citizens, and many view politics favorably. Reflecting on his aspirations for his daughters, Toua Yang, a Hmong American man in Minnesota, demonstrated this positive view of political participation. “I want them to be good citizens as much as they can be,” he said. “I want them to understand how important their vote is. I want them to feel the freedom that they have in this country, which is something that we came here for. We came here to just look for freedom.” For a person whose life had been marked by forced migration and upheaval, political engagement represented a commitment to America as his home. “[T]his is my country,” said Yang, “and I’m not going anywhere.”
Though less numerous than other groups, Hmong American voters are a formidable political force. They have organized energetic efforts to register, assist and reach out to fellow Hmong voters. They are doing exactly what they have long done: engaging in their community and showing up to volunteer and vote. Meanwhile, political campaigns, while ramping up their outreach to AAPIs, still lag behind the work that Hmong Americans are doing themselves. Only 16 percent of Hmong Americans reported contact by a political party in 2016, and according to sociologist Yang Sao Xiong, the Hmong American vote is “up for grabs” in 2020. As Xiong argued, 74 percent of registered Hmong Americans voters chose Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016, but 80 percent of Hmong Americans do not have a party affiliation.
Hmong Americans — a politically active, swing demographic group located in key swing states — could shape the outcome of the 2020 election, a fact that reflects the irony of history. Hmong Americans, who came to the United States as refugees, may decide whether to jettison or keep in office a president who has reduced refugee admissions to historic lows and made opposition to refugees a centerpiece of his campaign. And they will vote in a country that, four and a half decades ago, broadly opposed their resettlement and planned to render them invisible and “unnoticeable.” In the 1970s, politicians in charge of resettlement were eager to reduce Hmong refugees’ impact on American communities. Little did they know that, decades later, Hmong Americans could indeed have an impact — a big impact — not just on the course of their cities and states, but on the nation as a whole.