Hmong in Alaska
Search for Work Fuels Second Migration from Central Valley
New America Media, News Report, Elena Shore Posted: Apr 06, 2009
Traducción al español
Editor's Note: As unemployment rises in California’s Central Valley, some Hmong are forced to choose between staying with their clan and leaving to find work. Oklahoma, Tennessee, even Alaska are new destination points.
Cindy Vang and her husband grew up in the farm fields around Fresno and started their own family, part of an extended clan of Hmong whose roots date back to the early 1970s. Now they’ve left the Central Valley, probably for good, and are looking to bring some of their family members with them.
Vang decided to move to Tulsa, Okla., in 2006 when she was laid off from her job as a teacher’s aid for the Head Start program in Fresno.
“I didn’t want to stay on the welfare system, so I told my husband we needed to leave,” said Vang, in a phone call from Tulsa. She and her husband sold their 1,100-square-foot home in Fresno for $250,000 and bought a 5-acre, 3,000-square-foot house in Tulsa for about $170,000. Vang got a job at a manufacturing warehouse, and her husband is now working as a welder.
They brought their four kids with them on the move, and six months ago, they were joined by Vang’s aunt, uncle and two of their nine children. The seven oldest are still in the Central Valley. Now, one of Vang’s brothers is thinking of moving there, too.
The Vangs are part of a small but notable second migration of Hmong that began in the last few years. After three or four decades of putting down roots in the Central Valley, first in the farmlands and increasingly in the cities, they are now moving to other regions of the country.
“About 10 Hmong families are moving here a month, and those are just the ones I know,” said Vang. Many of these families are from Fresno or Sacramento, she says, but there are also families from other states like Minnesota and Michigan.
With 32,000 Hmong, Fresno remains the second largest Hmong population in the country, after Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn. California’s Central Valley is home to 47,000 Hmong. But with unemployment in Fresno up to 16.4 percent -- its highest level in 12 years, according to the state Employment Development Department -- many Hmong families are beginning to look elsewhere for jobs.
Sophia Dewitt, director of housing, health and senior services ministries at the Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries, has seen 20 to 30 Hmong leave Fresno in the last six months “because of the lack of jobs” in the area, she says. They are now moving to states like Alaska, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Wisconsin to find jobs in poultry processing plants, factories and janitorial work.
Minnesota, once the traditional destination for Hmong seeking unskilled labor, is no longer a magnet. Oklahoma, where living is cheaper and there are more jobs in assembly work, and Arkansas, with its poultry industry, are the big draws, said Sang Moua, business manager for Hmong Today, a newspaper in Minneapolis. Another destination for Hmong is Alaska. “The draw there is the stipend each citizen gets to move there, and if you have eight kids,” Moua says, it adds up.
Vang says she believes her family is better off in Tulsa than in Fresno, even if the labor market there contracts. Given what's happening to Hmong farmers in the Valley, she chose a good time to get out.
Faced with a drought and falling food prices, farmers there could be in trouble, says Michael Yang, who has worked with the UC Cooperative Extension’s small farm program for 15 years. With the rising costs of seeds and fertilizer, he says, they are getting a lower return on their investment.
For Hmong families, who tend to farm smaller plots of land – usually between two and 20 acres – the effects of the cooling economy could be more severe. As prices fall for the crops they produce, including lima beans, green beans, Chinese eggplant, peanuts, tomatoes, bitter melon, lemongrass, sugarcane, peanuts and jicama, many of these small-time farmers are having a hard time making ends meet.
It’s particularly hard for the most recent Hmong refugees. The 2,600 people who arrived in July 2004 are about to reach their five-year lifetime limit on cash aid.
“We don’t know what the outcome will be for these farmers,” said Yang.
It is still too early to tell how farmers will fare this year, explains Peter Vang, staff analyst and refugee community liaison with the Fresno County Department of Employment and Temporary Assistance. If California’s farms do well, unemployment will be lower for Hmong.
“We should know by May or June,” he said, whether the unemployment levels for Hmong in the Central Valley will be high enough to force them to leave in larger numbers.
Although some families are beginning to leave, he says that so far this has not happened in significant numbers – in part, he says, because Hmong rely on their family network in hard times.
“Hmong, even in a crisis,” he said, “still have extended families to support each other.”
But as families like the Vangs leave the Valley in search of jobs and lower costs of living, those family ties are getting stretched thin.
“Families are being split, often because kids are finding jobs in other states,” said Yang of the UC Cooperative Extension. “The older people stay here because they farm.”
“A week ago one of my neighbors, a farmer, came to my door,” Yang said. “His kids had left Fresno and now he’s living by himself. Someone had stolen his truck, and he couldn’t speak the language, so he asked me to call the police to report it. You’re used to having kids who can help you, understand you.”
Cindy Vang, whose parents are still in Fresno, admits that leaving her family was difficult. “It was hard for us to make the move to Oklahoma,” she said. “But we needed to go where we were going to survive. They needed to stay where they could survive.”
Vang says she is planning to bring her parents to Tulsa when she and her husband get settled. “If they like the weather,” she says, “we’ll go back for the clan.”
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