EAU CLAIRE (WQOW) -- Hmong leaders are expressing their concerns after reports that the Trump administration is working on a plan to deport thousands of Hmong residents to Laos.
In late January, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with the Lao People's Democratic Republic on an agreement that would send certain Hmong and Lao people in the U.S. back to the country of their birth.
"Deportation involves the separation of families and it involves the breaking up of communities," said Dr. Kong Pheng Pha, a Critical Hmong Studies assistant professor with UW-Eau Claire.
The Trump administration's proposal could reportedly affect more than 4,500 Hmong and Lao U.S. residents who are not citizens. Some of those affected include refugees who were not able to become citizens because of criminal records but who have since served their sentences.
"Hmong people came to the United States as refugees so that is a very clear distinction from immigrants. When we think about refugees, refugees are people who are fleeing danger, who are fleeing persecution and so it does not make any sense to deport refugees back to places that they have fled from," said Dr. Pha.
Dr. Pha said with previous cases of deportees sent to Cambodia and Vietnam, many ended up with mental health issues, experiencing loneliness, depression, and worse, death by suicide.
"They are not deporting individuals who grew up there. These are individuals that came to the United States as children who don't know anything about Laos and don't speak Lao," said Dr. Pha.
The Eau Claire Hmong Mutual Assistance Association reports there are more than 3,000 Hmong people living in the city of Eau Claire, making them the largest minority group in the area.
"This policy is scary," said Dr. Pha. "Luckily for me, I know that I am safe, but for many community members, I know they are vulnerable and that makes me really angry."
News 18 reached out to the Hmong Mutual Assistance Association.
The Executive Director declined to go on camera, saying he wanted to "Gather more facts about the situation and not create panic in the Chippewa Valley's Hmong community."
Dr. Pha also says he's worried about the ripple effect deporting Hmong people could have, adding it could open the door to displacing more communities.
Representative Ron Kind says in light of serious human rights abuses in Laos, he plans to oppose the administration from moving forward with the plan.
Here is the full statement from Rep. Kind:
“I take these reports very seriously, and I have sent a letter to Secretary of State Pompeo asking him to verify their accuracy and provide more clarity. Thousands of Hmong and Laotian veterans fled to the US in the 1970's after fighting alongside the US in the Vietnam War, and I have personally met with many of these veterans throughout my district in southwest Wisconsin. With ongoing reports of serious human rights abuses in Laos cited in the State Department's own reports to Congress, I will oppose the administration moving forward with any plan that threatens to put any of these individuals, or their families, in harm's way."