FRED DE SAM LAZARO: This Buddhist monastery campus in central Thailand was built as a drug rehabilitation center. Today, it's a sprawling dilapidated village, fenced in by the military, inhabited by perhaps the last refugees from the war in Indochina.
For about two decades, thousands of Hmong, an ethnic minority from Laos, have lurched from camp to camp in a stateless limbo. Early this year, the U.S. said it would grant refugee status to about 15,000 residents of this camp. Anywhere from 1,500 to 5,000 are expected to move to St. Paul, Minnesota, which has the largest Hmong community of any American city. (Applause) Anticipating a new influx, St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly brought a delegation to the camp. He said he wanted to assess how many people might move to Minnesota and what their needs would be in areas like education, housing and health care. A huge crowd greeted the visitors.
MAYOR RANDY KELLY: I would like to begin by thanking you for the support that many of you gave to our country in the War in Vietnam.
(TRANSLATOR Translating into Hmong language ) ( applause )
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: It was their close anti-communist alliance with the CIA that forced the Hmong-- people like Chao Lor-- to flee Laos when communist forces took over.
CHAO LOR ( Translated ): I had to carry my sons on my back until it was calloused. We had to run away through the jungle from people trying to kill us. I didn't think we'd make it.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Several thousand Hmong refugees were given asylum in the U.S. during the late 1970s and early '80s. It was a painful transition for an agrarian, isolated community from the tropical Laotian hills, says Mee Moua, the first Hmong elected to Minnesota's legislature.
MEE MOUA: Imagine landing at the Minneapolis- St. Paul Airport in the middle of a blizzard, which has happened to some of my relatives, to say, "and this is America?" You know, it's physically shocking, it's visually shocking and it is emotionally draining to try to process all of that. (singing )
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Even as they brought old traditions like Hmong new year festivities to new venues like the Minneapolis Metrodome, the Hmong, more than most immigrants, struggled with language and cultural barriers. Few people in host communities understood either their language or culture.
Two decades later, life remains a struggle for many, but St. Paul's Hmong community has made significant strides. Almost half of Hmong families own their own homes, and there are 400 Hmong-owned businesses in the city. Senator Moua, a lawyer by training, is one of many success stories.
MAYOR RANDY KELLY: We have state senators-- Mee Moua; we have a state representative, Cy Thao; we have a school board member, Kazoua Kong; we have a number of Hmong who have been and are very successful in our political life in our community.
WOMAN: ( Speaking in Hmong language )
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Attorney Ilene Her, who came to the U.S at age six in the first wave, thinks the role the Hmong community is playing in the newest resettlement is critical.
ILENE HER: The first time around, like 30 years ago, the Hmong community was not a part of the discussion at all, and now we are. And we're part of the solution. And that, I think, to me is very healing, and I think that's what the community here needs to hear.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Wherever Her and other Hmong Americans went, they found hugs, tears and pleas for help.
ILENE HER: Her husband is old. They don't think they can make it in the U.S. ( Translated ): If we do not come, remember us, love us, help us to stay here.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Some camp residents pleaded for help to remain in Thailand, a place that's become familiar after decades. But the Thai government has ruled out permanent residency for people it considers illegal migrants.
MAN ( Translated ): I fought for the United States, the CIA and General Vang Pao.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Others, especially older people, remain faithful to the original cause of fighting the Laotian government and want U.S. help.
CHAO LOR: ( Speaking in Hmong language )
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: One of Chao Lor's four sons remains a guerrilla in the jungle. Another two went to America in the 1980s. At that time, Chao Lor and her fourth son, Chai Chang, stayed behind to help her husband, who was addicted to opium.
By the time he died, the window of opportunity to go to the U.S. had closed. Now, she says, this family's painful separation may finally end. ( Crying )
CHAO LOR ( Translated ): I'm very hopeless. I'm sad because my family's been broken up. One's in laos, one's in America, one's in Thailand. We have no future here.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Her son and daughter-in-law are concerned about their own ability to adapt to life in America.
CHAI CHANG( Translated ): I'm worried that I won't be able to get a job because I don't speak English.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: But they're excited at the better future their seven children will have. For the past decade, they've shared a 400-square-foot, mud- floor shack. They must walk past open sewers for basic amenities like water and sanitation. Schools in the camp are crowded. Most classes are taught in Thai.
VOICES: Hi, randy!
VOICES: Hi, randy.
MAYOR RANDY KELLY: Study hard.
( Translating )
MAYOR RANDY KELLY: Learn English.
( Translating )
MAYOR RANDY KELLY: And when you come to America, you'll be ready to learn and become very successful.
( Translating )
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Not everyone in Minnesota is thrilled at the prospect of more Hmong settlers. The mayor's office, for example, has a stack of mail and messages critical of his trip.
SPOKESMAN READING LETTER: "Why is the mayor bringing the Hmong immigrants to our city?" There's one that just said, "my son's out of work and is very much opposed to Hmong immigrants resettling here."
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: For his part the mayor insists he isn't inviting new Hmong refugees. Instead, he said, he just wants to get a better handle on the needs of those who'd come to Minnesota anyway. But at the end of a moving day at the camp, Kelly said if his trip made St. Paul seem more hospitable than other places, the Hmong deserve that.
MAYOR RANDY KELLY: We need to show that those people who come forward and assist us and become our allies should be treated properly. And I'm not sure that they have been, so if I can, from a standpoint of representing the united states, extend a hand of welcome when I know they're coming to America, then I'm honored to do that.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Camp residents had to undergo a rigorous battery of clearances for security and health risks, and interviews to determine that they are political, not economic refugees in Thailand.
RAY SUAREZ: The first family of refugees arrived on Monday and as many as 5,000 are expected by November.