Immigrants, Refugees, and Collective Action in the US

By Jeremy Hein

Immigrants and refugees are best viewed as a powerful source of mobilization and collective action in both civic engagement (solving community problems) and social movements (challenging a dominant group). They should not be viewed as passive groups that need to be taught by natives how to “act up.” I base this conclusion primarily on my research on the 60,000 Hmong Americans in Minneapolis-St. Paul, an ethnic community initially formed by refugees from the spillover of the Vietnam War into Laos (Hein and Vang 2015; Hein 2014), and a close reading of Vang (2011). For conceptual clarity, immigrants refers to international migrants who move to join family members or find jobs, while refugees flee from violence (see Hein [1993] for a more complex discussion of the similarities and differences between immigrants and refugees).

How does US citizenship affect mobilization efforts?

Citizenship is of great value for influencing conventional politics but makes little difference to mobilization that takes the form of civic engagement or social movements. Immigrants and refugees in the US who have been legally admitted usually have the status “permanent resident” which gives them almost all the rights of citizens except for voting, a few forms of public assistance, and most jobs in the federal government. Permanent residents retain the citizenship of their homeland until they “naturalize” (apply for and are given citizenship after five years of US residence with no criminal record and demonstrating English proficiency and basic knowledge of civics). Many issues of concern to immigrants and refugees are either transnational (and thus outside national citizenship) or local (and thus below national citizenship). Transnational issues of concern to Hmong Americans in Minneapolis-St. Paul have included human rights violations against the Hmong in Laos and the desecration of Hmong graves in Thailand. Mobilization on the latter problem was so intense that the St. Paul city council passed a motion condemning the desecration in 2007 and in 2008 a representative from the UN came to hold a human rights hearing. Local issues have included a neighborhood parking ban during an annual ethnic festival and racists comments by a talk radio host. US citizenship was irrelevant for all of these issues.

There is, however, a stark dividing line between mobilization by legal and “illegal” (also termed undocumented) immigrants. Permanent residents can engage in protests without fear of deportation unless they engage in actions that would lead to a felony conviction (more than one year in prison), such as threatening a police officer. But the mass nation-wide peaceful protests by undocumented immigrants seeking legalization in 2006 demonstrates that even this extremely oppressed population will fight back. In 2011 Alabama criminalized illegal immigrants in state law (e.g., local police could arrest them for trespassing) but immigrants responded with intense organizing efforts to undo the law. Various proposals to grant amnesty to undocumented immigrants would create a legal right to reside in the US through a new legal status that is less secure than permanent resident, such as “registered provisional immigrant” or a “deferred action” card.

How is immigrant mobilization related to the issues of refugees?

Refugees are more likely than immigrants to engage in transnational political activism since most refugees flee their homeland due to state persecution and violence. Cuban refugees, who began settling in South Florida in the 1960s, and Vietnamese refugees in southern California, who resettled their in the mid 1970s, are well known examples. Both supported strong anti-socialist activism which only diminished after the US normalized diplomatic relations with their homelands (Vietnam in 1995, Cuba in 2014). Hmong Americans in Minneapolis-St. Paul have organized around several international concerns other than human rights problems in Laos, including US normalization of trade with Laos in 2003 and Thailand’s deportation of Hmong refugees back to Laos in 2009. Many immigrants, however, do engage in transnational civic engagement, such as helping economic and educational development in their hometowns, as well as transnational conventional politics (aiding local and national candidates in home country elections).

How can immigrants frame their grievances to produce sympathy within the native population?

Immigrants and refugees do not need the sympathy of the native population in order to successfully mobilize, take collective action, and achieve some social change. Most of them already have strong cultural and social resources within their communities. For Hmong refugees and their descendants these sources of leadership and solidarity include: Hmong veterans of the Secret War in Laos; clan leaders (Hmong who have the same surname, such as Vang and Xiong); ethnic churches (about one-third of Hmong Americans are Christian); and nonprofit organizations funded by government agencies and philanthropies to provide social services (preliminary findings from my current research show that Hmong nonprofit organizations accounted for 50 percent of protest event organizers while social movement organizations accounted for only 30 percent).
For example, natives were not relevant when Hmong American across the US mobilized in outrage in 2007 after former General Vang Pao was arrested by the US Department of Justice. He was the leader of the US CIA funded Secret Guerilla Unit in Laos during the 1960s and early 1970s and was charged with terrorism for continuing to support Hmong insurgents fighting against the socialist government of Laos. The charges were dropped in 2010. Similarly, Hmong Americans in Minneapolis-St. Paul overturned a discriminatory parking ban during their main ethnic festival without seeking native allies. Natives played only a small, supporting role when Hmong Americans forced a local radio station to apologize and take other remedial action following racist comments by one of its talk-show hosts.

There are, however, some individuals and groups within the native population that can become important allies of immigrants and refugees. These include religious leaders; colleges and universities; social movement organizations related to work, sexualities, and racism; and the funders of art, education, and other forms of civic engagement. Allies of Hmong Americans in Minneapolis-St. Paul have included Dr. Mark Pfeifer (who created and has published the Hmong Studies Journal since 1996); the Minnesota Historical Society (which published the first ever anthology of Hmong fiction in 2002); Concordia University (which established the Center for Hmong Studies in 2004); Communities United Against Police Brutality (which supported protests over the police killing of an unarmed Hmong American teenager in 2008); and TakeAction Minnesota (a social justice organization that supported the radio talk-show protests in 2011).


Hein, Jeremy and Nengher Vang. 2015. “Politicians and Social Movements: The Impact of Electoral Victory on Local, National, and Transnational Activism by Hmong Americans in Minneapolis-St. Paul.” Social Movement Studies 14(2):164-179.

Hein, Jeremy. 2014. “The Urban Ethnic Community and Collective Action: Politics, Protest, and Civic Engagement by Hmong Americans in Minneapolis-St. Paul.” City & Community 13(2):119-139.

Hein, Jeremy. 1993. “Refugees, Immigrants, and the State.” Annual Review of Sociology 19:43- 59.

Vang, Nengher. 2011. “Political Transmigrants: Rethinking Hmong Political Activism in America.” Hmong Studies Journal 12:1-46.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Immigrants and Refugees

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