An obscure federal government report has just revealed a hitherto largely neglected set of immigration/rule-of-law problems in one of the nation's larger refugee communities, that of the Hmong tribesmen from Laos, who were our allies in the Vietnam War.
The pattern is a grim one, and one not confined to the Hmong: old men get tired of their old wives, dump them, and, in these cases, fly to Laos (or to nearby China or Thailand) to get new, teenaged wives, often apparently in violation of one or more of our marriage, divorce, bigamy, child support, and/or immigration laws.
They can obtain these new spouses because of the modest prosperity of the old men and the grinding poverty in the Asian villages. Sometimes they bring the brides home to the United States and sometimes they leave them in Asia, routinely spending money there that should be used to help their U.S. families. Needless to say, this is extremely hard on the abandoned first wives, and often on the children of that marriage.
And this is the worst part: There seems to be no organized effort on the part of the Hmong community, or anyone else, to use existing American laws to rein in these often illegal practices.
Background. The Hmong are a rural, traditional, poor, ethnic minority in Laos, routinely kicked around by the majority Lowland Lao (a Hmong term) population. Given these characteristics, they sided first with the colonial French against the Lao and, after the war in adjacent Vietnam broke out, they sided with the Americans, betting on the losing side both times. The Lowland Lao were, understandably, not pleased with the Hmong, who generally live in the hardscrabble highlands of that country.
We, unlike the French, offered refugee status to them after the fall of Saigon and we admitted well over 100,000 of them in the 1970s and 1980s. Given their Third World birth rates, there are now more than a quarter of a million Hmong, largely in California (where the climate is warm) and Minnesota and Wisconsin (which had welcoming welfare policies) according to the 2010 US Census.
Unlike the more westernized Vietnamese, there were few Hmong valedictorians, but many recipients of food stamps and other income transfer programs. It remains, in many ways, a very traditional, lightly-educated population.
During the 1980s and early 1990s I had extensive contact with the Hmong as I managed a series of research contracts on the community for the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) of the Department of Health and Human Services. I worked with teams of American academics and Hmong interpreters; ORR had decided it needed to know more about the resettlement challenges of the community and sensed that there was not yet anyone within that community able to do the research. This may still be true; the writer of the new ORR report, Chic Dabby-Chinoy, an expert on violence against women, appears to be from India.
The New ORR Report. "Abusive International Marriages: Hmong Advocates Organizing in Wisconsin" deals with the current problem of the randy grandfathers in the most circumspect manner, ever mindful of the immense (if slowly fading) power in the Hmong community of tribal elders and clan leaders, who are often the ones with the brand-new spouses. (This was a problem unknown to me when I was with ORR as the average age of the refugees was then much younger, and there was very little prosperity to finance such adventures.)
Here are some of the problems outlined (p. 14) in the report:
- "Older men, up to the age of 90, are marrying girls under 18 years of age ... with brides ranging in age from 13 to 17."
- "Age differences of 20 to 70 years."
- "Fathers may pressure their adult sons to marry a teen wife from their home country, but she is really intended for the father."
- "Men are lying about already being married, or claiming they are widowed, or divorced ... A woman or girl may thus be unaware that she is actually a second wife."
- "Husbands are forcing their [U.S. resident] wives to divorce them so that they can proceed with an international marriage. These wives often lose child support."
Sometimes the old men bring their new wives back from Laos to live with their earlier family in the United States (including the original and legal wife). In some cases the original children find themselves with a new stepmother of their own age or younger.
There are a plethora of state and federal laws and regulations dealing with many of these issues, but not one of them is mentioned in this report, which only seeks to educate both Hmong men and women to end these kinds of abuses. The approach is totally touchy-feely with no suggestion that many of the practices are counter to our child-abuse, marriage, divorce, immigration, and/or anti-polygamy statutes.
The report acts as though these disagreeable actions can be approached only through Hmong channels, as if older Hmong males were immune to the laws of the United States. It is as if the Hmong had not moved to the United States at all. It suggests minimal contact with American society and nothing approaching integration or assimilation.
It also ignores, totally, the fact that importing a new wife when one already has one in the States is immigration-related marriage fraud.
Tossing a few of the offending older men, including clan leaders, in jail for sexual abuse would seem to be a better approach. Enforcing family financial support rules, or denying visas on the grounds of polygamy, or making sure that the State Department did not issue marriage or fiancee visas to people under the age of 18 who were destined to live in California, where that is the age of consent — none of these possibilities was mentioned. Such actions should be vigorous and be followed up with extensive publicity within the Hmong community.
Some of the old men would be unhappy, but it would indicate that our laws mean something and that the described actions were totally unacceptable in this nation.
The report's few references to the rule of law are — again stressing the isolation of this population — related to governments in Southeast Asia that have taken a few steps against these practices. The appendix notes that "According to new marriage regulations, the Cambodian government issued an age limit for male foreigners over the age of 50 to be outlawed from marrying Cambodian women in the country."
This is highly commendable — if it's enforced — but of little practical use to the Hmong women in the States, as there are few Hmong in that nation. It also shows that another nation not noted for its progressive social legislation is way ahead of the United States on this issue.
Now I know that a report funded by an agency, as this one was supported by ORR, does not necessarily reflect the policy of the agency, but it is disheartening that the author and the report's sponsor, the Wisconsin Refugee Family Strengthening Project, should approach the randy grandfathers issue in such a pallid manner.
It is useful, however, that the report was published as this sorry situation will now be subject — one hopes — to more widespread attention.
On a personal note, I remember running into a segment of this problem years ago, in terms of marriages of very young Hmong girls in the United States (to, as I recall, slightly older males). I suggested the use of state laws on the subject of marital age. Someone at ORR said, in turn, that I was being an "imperialist".
This report suggests a continuation of that point of view.