In 1990, I taught an adult English as a Second Language class at the Clairmont School in Stockton, CA. My students were Hmong, members of the mountain tribe in Laos recruited by the CIA in the 1960s to fight a guerilla war against the Communists, now refugees here in the U.S.
In the Hmong culture, men are considered superior to women. Accordingly, the class divided itself into two groups: the women sat in the first three rows followed by two empty rows. The men sat in the back. To try to rearrange the students would have been folly.
One afternoon, just before break time, I walked up and down the aisles reviewing the student's notebooks. When I took a pencil out of My's hand to correct her work, our hands inadvertently touched.
After my review, I gave my students ten minutes. When I returned, the women were crying and hugging each other while the men screamed at them and waved their fingers.
With the assistance of Jennifer, my Hmong high-school translator, the story slowly unfolded. Since another man had now touched My, her husband Vang felt he had no alternative but to take her home to kill her.
"Why doesn't he want to kill me?" I asked Jennifer.
"He likes you and knows that you know nothing of Hmong customs. But he will never forgive her," replied Jennifer.
According to My, animosity had been building inside Vang for years. My was slowly assimilating—she drove, made quick trips to the store alone, spoke a little English and talked about becoming an American citizen.
Vang, who pointed out that he had paid a handsome dowry for My, resented her successes.
I never saw them again. But I did learn through the rumor mill that My survived. She and Vang were consulting with a shaman to cure his depression.
But Vang could not bear to have My in the same room with the only other man to ever touch her.
What brought this story back to me is the recent (July 21) report by Reuters: "U.S. to Accept 8,000 Hmongs."
Currently living in Thailand since the communist takeover of Laos in 1975, 8,000 of this group of 15,400 Hmong will be reunified with their U.S. relatives.
Not surprisingly, the U.S-based Hmong exiles are pressing for more refugees to be sent.
It was my teaching experience with the Hmong provided me with my first insight into what really goes on in the messed-up world of immigration. My practice with new students is to ask all of them how long they have been in the U.S. By judging how they answer that simple question, I can determine what level of English speaking skill they have.
Most of the Hmong came to the U.S. in the early 1980s with two or three children. But by the time they became my students, they had six or eight children. And some of their oldest children had become parents themselves.
"Hmm," I said to myself, "In the late 1970s, there were few Hmong in America. Now barely two decades later, the US has three generations of Hmong. That spells trouble."
And of course, the Hmong have floundered ever since they arrived. Because the Hmong only developed a written language during the last few decades, learning English has been practically impossible for adults. I've had students who attended class for several years but never got beyond the stage of crudely copying block letters into their binders.
Not surprisingly, the Hmong have ranked at the bottom of Asian refugee and immigrant groups in family income, averaging about $15,000. Dependence on welfare has remained stunningly high.
And Hmong teenage children have had a terrible go of it. The kids have no interest in sitting around the house to listen to tales about the good old days in the mountains of Laos. In fact, the ones I know cannot point to Laos on a globe. So some of the girls - often as young as 13 - elope. They marry in a cultural ceremony – something involving a chicken, I believe - until they can legally marry at 18. But they don't wait to have children of their own.
The young rebellious boys join gangs.
To measure what the impact will be on communities asked to absorb the 8,000 Hmongs en route to America, read Roy Beck's classic article "The Ordeal of Immigration in Wausau" which first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in 1994. Beck's piece was the foundation for a 1995 "60 Minutes" segment by Morley Safer titled "Enough."
(Aside: Note that in Beck's last paragraph, he wrote about pending Congressional legislation to reduce legal immigration. That's the Smith-Simpson bill, enacting the recommendations of the Jordan Commission, that was sabotaged in 1996 by Republican turncoats like then-Senator Spencer Abraham, cheered on by neoconservative ideological commissars like the Wall Street Journal Edit Page.)
I have always been deeply torn about the Hmong in America. During slow times in the class, I would listen to their stories through the translator.
How could you not feel for them? The Hmong were valiant allies.
I was pleased when the Hmong were given the option to take the U.S. citizenship test in their native language. But when so few took advantage of the opportunity, I was deeply disappointed.
I have two unavoidable questions:
I asked Roy Beck, now head of NumbersUSA, what he thought about pending Hmong resettlement
"The good news is that it does not appear that there is an endless supply of Hmong refugees who will attempt to move to the U.S. The remaining numbers on foot appears pretty low.
"Since these refugees are reported to be rejoining relatives in the U.S. that means they will predominantly add to some rough social conditions in a number of cities because the earlier Hmong overwhelmed the social service systems of their new communities.
"Refugees in general, and the Hmong in particular, are far more likely than other foreign settlers to take welfare and to be net economic drains on local communities. That is why it is important that only small numbers of refugees be re-settled in any community.
"Unfortunately, there appears to be little way to make that happen as each new nationality of refugees tends to overwhelm a number of communities. These pressures on local communities might be easier to handle from refugees if many of these communities were not already reeling from three decades of mass regular immigration and illegal immigration [now around 1.75 million a year]."
"The appropriate thing to do with the Hmong is to resettle them in their part of the world, at the very least. The problem is that no one else wants them."
But just because no one else wants the Hmong – at least, not without compensation - doesn't mean that we should take them.
The time is overdue to put American interests first.
And 8,000 additional refugees isn't the best for us in 2003.
Joe Guzzardi [email him], an instructor in English at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly newspaper column since 1988. This column is exclusive to VDARE.COM.