Significant numbers of Laotian immigrants first came to the United States in the wake of the Vietnam War. They have often been lumped together with Vietnamese refugees, but the Laotians have differed in generally having less education, fewer skills, and more assimilation challenges. The Hmong, who fought against communism in Laos, are often included among Laotian immigrants, but these mountain people come from throughout Southeast Asia.
Laos is situated in the center of the Indochinese peninsula at the heart of the Mekong Basin, with Vietnam to the east. The location of the country ensured that it would become caught up in the turmoil of the Vietnam War during the 1960’s and early 1970’s, when its own people were also fighting a civil war. As the United States withdrew from Southeast Asia in 1975, Laotian refugees began to make their way to America. The U.S. government labeled all refugees as “Indochinese” regardless of their countries of origin. As a result, Laotians have been lumped together with the much larger number of Vietnamese refugees who poured into the United States. Consequently, some of the available government information does not represent the pattern of Laotian immigration.
Laotian refugee children at a refugee camp in Thailand in 1979.
The Laotian refugees came in two major waves, which included ethnic Chinese, Lao minorities (chiefly Lao Theung and Mein), and the Hmong among their numbers. The first wave, from 1975 to 1977, consisted largely of
The second wave, consisting largely of Lao minorities who began to arrive in the United States in 1978, resulted from attempts by the new Lao government to consolidate its control over ethnic minorities who had fought earlier for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. In 1978, the U.S. government offered “parolee” status to Hmong and other Laotians who had been employees of the U.S. government, with priority given to people who had been persecuted by communists. The 1980
The Laotian immigrants who arrived as the result of the Vietnam War tended to be less educated than previous Southeast Asian immigrants. The 20,000 or so Hmong who arrived during the late 1970’s were, for the most part, illiterate. The Hmong and Laotian ethnic minorities tended not only to be illiterate, but also to have skills in few fields other than slash-and-burn agriculture. The fact that the Hmong and Mein peoples had no written language further complicated their ability to adjust to life in the United States. The refugees tended to be young, with most coming as part of large family groups.
By the end of the 1980’s, about 266,000 Laotians had immigrated to the United States. Most settled in
Goudineau, Yves, ed. Laos and Ethnic Minority Cultures: Promoting Heritage. Paris: UNESCO, 2003. Kelly, Gail P. “Coping with America: Refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos in the 1970’s and 1980’s.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Society Science 487 (September, 1986): 138-149. Lee, Joann Faung Jean. Asian Americans in the Twenty-first Century: Oral Histories of First- to Fourth-Generation Americans from China, Japan, India, Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Laos. New York: New Press, 2008.
History of immigration after 1891
Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act of 1975