HomeHmong AmericanGroups urge Census to reclassify Hmong people as ‘Southeast Asian’ not ‘East...

Groups urge Census to reclassify Hmong people as ‘Southeast Asian’ not ‘East Asian’

by Akemi Tamanaha, AsAmNews Associate Editor

Civil rights organizations and advocacy groups say a mistake in subregion classifications made by the U.S. Census Bureau could prove costly for Hmong Americans. 

Last year, the Census Bureau released new data sets from the 2020 Census as part of the Detailed Demographic and Housing Characteristics File A (Detailed DHC-A). Hmong and Southeast Asian-focused groups discovered in the DHC-A data sets that the bureau had classified Asians by subregions and mistakenly classified Hmong people as “East Asian” instead of “Southeast Asian.”

A few weeks ago, a coalition of 12 Hmong and other Asian American and Pacific Islander organizations, led by the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC) sent a letter to U.S. Census Bureau Director Robert L. Santos urging him to prioritize reclassifying Hmong as “Southeast Asian.”

“The issue continues to gain traction within the Southeast Asian American community, with growing awareness of the implications of accurate demographic representation and its potential impact on not just our data, visibility, and identity but also on potential research and funding,” the letter read.

SEARAC also circulated petition calling for the reclassification which garnered over 1,700 signatures.

An erasure of history and identity

In an email to AsAmNews, Rachel Marks, Branch Chief of Racial Statistics Branch, Population Division, U.S. Census Bureau, said that Hmong people were classified as “East Asian” based “on stakeholder feedback and guided by the ‘original peoples’ language in the standards set by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget in 1997.” 

Quyên Đinh, the executive director of SEARAC, believes the definition and subsequent classification may have been based on literature that suggests Hmong people originate from China. But ultimately, the “East Asian” classification is incongruous with the history and identity of Hmong Americans. 

Thousands of Hmong people came to the U.S. in the 1970s and 1980s as refugees after the culmination of several wars across Southeast Asia. Many came specifically from Laos after the end of the Laotian Civil War.

“And so when the Hmong community is lumped into the East Asian category, that history really becomes a neglected and ignored and it doesn’t speak to the unique histories that these communities come from,” Đinh said.

Many of the Hmong refugees who fled to the U.S. were veterans who fought alongside the U.S. during the Vietnam War and its Secret War in Laos. Đinh said she spoke to veterans who felt it was a “slap in the face” to not be recognized as Southeast Asian after “they sacrificed their lives and their family’s lives.”

Ntxhais Chai Moua heard from veterans that the misclassification speaks to a fear they’ve held for a long time: that Hmong people will be erased from history. 

Moua is the executive director of Freedom, Inc., a Black and Southeast Asian non-profit that serves communities of color in Dane County, Wisconsin, where around 5,900 Hmong Americans live. She hopes the Census Bureau will apologize for their mistake and fix it.

Marks, in an email to AsAmNews, said that after “extensive engagement with leaders from the Hmong community leading up to the 2020 Census Detailed DHC-A release, the Census Bureau recognizes that many within the Hmong population in the United States identify as part of the Southeast Asian population.” A similar acknowledgement has also been posted on the Census Bureau’s website.

Disaggregated Data

In the letter, groups also emphasized the policy implications of having accurate census data.

“Accurate census data is essential for informing policies, allocating resources and addressing the needs of underserved communities, and we believe that this change would help advance equity and justice for the Hmong population,” the groups wrote in the letter.

Generally speaking, lumping all Asian Americans together conceals the needs of different ethnic groups. Đinh noted that many Southeast Asians, including Hmong Americans, are dealing with the “inter-generational trauma of war, genocide and poverty.” Nearly 60 percent of Hmong Americans, for example, are low income and nearly one in four live in poverty.

Lumping Hmong Americans in with other East Asian groups in the census could potentially conceal those issues.

”From a data perspective, we really understand that data has the power to reveal, but it can only do that when Asian American data is actually disaggregated by our ethnic communities,” Đinh said.

Working with the Census Bureau

The mistake does not just disregard the history of Hmong Americans. Leaders say it also undermines the work Hmong Americans and other Southeast Asian Americans have done with the Census Bureau.

Moua said that Freedom, Inc. worked hard during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and amidst the threat of deportation for Southeast Asians to build trust. They wanted to ensure their communities were counted.

“As a Southeast Asian organization on the ground, this has also de-credited us in the community a lot,” Moua said.

In their March letter, SEARAC, Freedom, Inc. and ten other organizations asked to meet with U.S. Census Bureau Director Santos. Đinh said that SEARAC has been “very transparent” with the bureau about their efforts to seek accountability. They have received some pushback on technical solutions surrounding a recode.

Staff from the Census Bureau attended a webinar SEARAC hosted about accessing Hmong data. There has also been “partnership in terms of their acknowledgement of mistake.”

”There have certainly been efforts, but we are still pushing for a meeting with the director of the census to meet with our community organizations directly so that we can be engaged in what these solutions could look like both immediately but also for the long term,” she said.

Organizations hope to engage with the Census Bureau as preparations get underway for the 2030 Census. Đinh is one of 23 people who were recently appointed to the Census Bureau’s 2030 National Advisory Committee.

Marks told AsAmNews in an email that the Census Bureau is in the early stages of its 2030 Code Ali’s Improvement Project which ensure it accurately codes detailed race/ethnicity responses.

”An important part of this project will be seeking feedback from community leaders, experts, and researchers for feedback on the code list. We anticipate that we will begin seeking feedback toward the end of this year, and this will be the primary opportunity for the public to provide feedback on the 2030 Census Code List,” Marks said.

AsAmNews is published by the non-profit, Asian American Media Inc. Follow us on FacebookX, InstagramTikTok and YouTube. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to support our efforts to produce diverse content about the AAPI communities. We are supported in part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library in partnership with the California Department of Social Services and the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs as part of the Stop the Hate program. To report a hate incident or hate crime and get support, go to CA vs Hate.

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