Three weeks after Lao and Hmong refugees were alerted by news that prompted them to prepare for a possible rise in deportations, a bill that would halt deportations to Laos was introduced in Congress.
The Hmong and Lao Refugee Deportation Prohibition Act of 2020, authored by Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., and several other members of Congress, would stop the government from deporting people to Laos for 72 months and reopen the immigration cases of those with final orders of removal. It was introduced in the House on Friday.
The State Department said in a letter to McCollum on Feb. 14that the U.S. and Laotian governments were discussing their positions on Lao nationals subject to deportation.
McCollum said in a statement Friday that she rejects efforts by the State Department to pressure the Laotian government into signing a repatriation agreement. Doing so would allow Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to deport refugees to a country they fled decades ago, she added.
"It is a betrayal of the courage and sacrifice of our Hmong and Lao veterans and their families for the Trump administration to deport anyone to Laos," said McCollum, whose state is home to a significant Laotian and Hmong population. "This is a dangerous policy that will tear Hmong and Lao families apart, and I will do everything I can to stop it."
Lao, Hmong and other Laotian ethnic groups fled the Southeast Asian country after a nine-year bombing campaign by the U.S. during a Laotian civil war in the Vietnam era that ended in 1973. The CIA dropped 2 million bombs in the country, as well as artillery. The bombings, part of a conflict called the Secret War, made Laos the most heavily bombed nation per capita in history.
Many of those refugees resettled in the U.S., which is home to about 186,000 foreign-born Laotians, according to the 2017 American Community Survey.
KaYing Yang, director of programs and partnerships at the Coalition of Asian American Leaders, a nonprofit based in Minnesota, said in an email that the group appreciates and thanks members of Congress for introducing the bill. But she noted that it would defer and not stop deportations.
"We do not want the introduction of this bill to be a symbolic gesture because it will instill false hope in our community," Yang said. "It will also divert resources and energy from supporting urgent concrete actions that can lead to helping impacted families. We want our congressional leaders to reach across the aisle to do all that they can to enact policies that lead to stopping the deportation of refugees to countries where they fled political conflict."
News of a possible increase in deportations of Lao and Hmong refugees surfaced on Feb. 7, when McCollum shared a letter she wrote to the State Department expressing opposition to a repatriation agreement between the U.S. and Laos.
The State Department at the time did not confirm whether there were discussions between the U.S. and Lao governments about repatriation. But a spokesperson confirmed in an email that the government is funding a reintegration program to help Laos accept nationals with final orders of removal.
Katrina Dizon Mariategue, director of national policy at the civil rights nonprofit Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, previously told NBC News that it was troubling news for Laotians and Hmong with final orders of removal because it ultimately makes it easier for them to be reintegrated.
An ICE spokesperson said in an email that 4,716 non-detained Lao nationals had final orders of removal in the U.S. Of those, 4,086 have criminal convictions.
As of Feb. 15, 38 Lao nationals were in ICE custody with final orders of removal, all with criminal convictions. Also as of that date, nine Lao nationals had been deported in fiscal year 2020, eight of whom had criminal convictions, the spokesperson said.