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Hmong Seek Better Life in Exodus From State

November 10, 1996|MARK ARAX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FRESNO — For the first time since they began migrating here from Southeast Asia nearly two decades ago, Hmong refugees are leaving California in significant numbers, citing fear of gangs and impending welfare changes.

An estimated 60,000 Hmong, the highest concentration in the nation, settled in the San Joaquin Valley. Located mostly in Fresno, Merced and Tulare, they have the highest welfare dependency rate--about 70%--of any immigrant group.

Hmong community leaders say as many as 6,000 refugees have left this farm belt over the last year for Minnesota, Wisconsin, Oregon and other states. No longer certain of their welfare eligibility under the new federal law, many believe that their chances of finding work are better outside the depressed San Joaquin Valley.

"Our people love Fresno, but the job opportunities here are very minimal," said Pao Fang, director of the local Lao Family Community agency. "They are worried about welfare reform and gangs so they believe they have no choice. They put the family in the car and their belongings in a U-Haul and they drive, no stopping, all the way to Minnesota or Wisconsin in two days."

Picking up and leaving, he said, is in the Hmong blood. A people who were outcasts in their native China, they became a nomadic tribe of 18 clans who eventually migrated to Laos. When Communist forces overtook their mountain huts during the Vietnam War, they fled to refugee camps in Thailand and then to the United States.

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Hmong leaders say they do not know how many more families will join this new migration or if those who have relocated will end up staying. Many of the 6,000 refugees have landed in St. Paul, Minn., where 32,000 Hmong reside and assembly line work is available.

"Some of them have lived before in states where it's cold but some of them have not," said Kai Moua of the Lao Family Community in Merced, where the Hmong population has dropped from 13,000 to 11,000 in the last year. "I think next summer, after school is out, we will be seeing more Hmong leaving California."

Social service agencies in Fresno and Merced said the number of Hmong on welfare has dropped recently but not so dramatically that it would indicate an exodus. "It's almost impossible to get a handle on this thing because the Hmong are so mobile," said Ernest Velasquez, head of Fresno County Social Services.

"We have 4,000 fewer Hmong on welfare than we did two years ago. How much of this is Hmong finding work in Fresno and getting off the welfare rolls and how much is Hmong leaving for jobs in other states, it's hard to say."

"For a variety of reasons--welfare reform, a better job, gangs--the Hmong are leaving Merced," said Greg Wellman, Merced County's director of human services. "While I can't verify that a large number have left, we've started to see a small downturn in our welfare numbers over the past 90 days."

For nearly 20 years, the San Joaquin Valley has stood out as a place of exile for what sociologists regard as the most disadvantaged refugee group ever to land in America.

Sealed off from the outside world in the rugged mountains of Laos, they had no written language and adopted a code of laws based on myriad taboos. Among them: Do not tickle a baby's feet or he will grow up a thief.

In the 1960s, the Hmong were recruited by the CIA to fight the Viet Cong, and suffered the highest casualty rates of the Vietnam War. Many of the 125,000 who made their way to America regard welfare as redress for blood spilled on behalf of their adopted land.

Their customs--girls marrying as young as 13, fertility rates of 9.5 children per mother, shamans sacrificing puppies to cure the ill--have clashed dramatically with life in this agricultural heartland.

The Hmong have changed the landscape almost as much as it has changed them. The best strawberry growers here are Hmong, as are many high school valedictorians and some of the most troublesome youth gangs.

But for the vast majority of Hmong, this valley has meant a life of enduring poverty and welfare dependency inside an ethnic enclave mostly walled off from the rest of society. Various national and state programs designed to nudge the Hmong into self-sufficiency have largely failed.

Although California still must decide how it will interpret the fine print of the new federal welfare law, the changes probably will hit the Hmong hard. As early as next summer, refugees who have been in the United States five years and longer may lose their access to food stamps and Aid to Families With Dependent Children.

Houa Xiong, 32, who came to America in 1991 and settled in Fresno with his wife, Shia Lor, and five children, said he couldn't risk that chance. For almost three years, Xiong got by on welfare as he attended English classes and received his high school diploma. He got a job at a Red Lobster washing dishes and busing tables, but his $5.80 an hour was hardly enough to make ends meet.

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