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Wisconsin Writer Stirs Up Wausau Hmong Issue 20 Years After Roy Beck
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December 08, 2014, 03:20 PM
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In 1994, the Atlantic monthly published an article by then-reporter Roy Beck that was a wake-up call about extreme immigration diversity being foisted on America: The Ordeal of Immigration in Wausau. I remember reading it around that time and thinking Hmmm…

Now a pro-immigration writer has looked under the Hmong immigration rock, and he probably shouldn’t have gone there. There are immigrants who respond readily to the program of assimilation and become successful, and then there are the Hmong.

Roy Beck’s article illustrated the social disruption that happened when boatloads of rather backward Asians was dumped in a midwestern city. (NB: tribal Hmong are nothing like high-achieving Chinese immigrants.)

On the diversity scale among immigrants admitted to America, the Hmong tribe is surely near the top score of extreme behaviors, including shamanistic medicine, horse-eating, animal sacrifice, marriage by capture, polygamy, disinterest in obeying the law, a highly misogynist value system, and a dislike of education for women.

A Hmong immigrant was convicted of mass murder, a crime that occurred near Meteor Wisconsin, about 140 miles from Wausau. On November 21, 2004, Chai Vang trespassed on a private hunting reserve to shoot deer. When the owners asked him to leave, a dispute broke out and Vang shot eight Americans, killing six, with four shot in the back.

During the trial, Vang said the hunters deserved to die because they disrespected him. Apparently Hmong don’t observe private property where hunting is concerned, so a “culture clash” was cited by the media as an excuse for the brutal mass murder. Vang was sentenced to life in prison, with no parole.

Back to the present, the current writer admits there were diversity tensions back 20 years ago but asserts that difficulties have been sorted out now, so that means there was never a problem in the first place, observing the Beck piece “seems not so much prescient as dated.” It’s a backwards circular argument and not convincing.

If the Hmong really have progressed from their primitive cultural state, that’s good news.

But as Roy Beck asked, Why were the people of Wausau forced to accommodate such a difficult group that citizens as a whole did not want?

How Wausau’s immigration fears failed to come true, By Robert Mentzer, Wausau Daily Herald, December 7, 2014

20 YEARS LATER, THE ‘ORDEAL OF IMMIGRATION IN WAUSAU’ SEEMS MORE DATED THAN PRESCIENT.

“It all began simply enough, when a few churches and individuals in Wausau, Wisconsin, decided to settle some Southeast Asian refugees during the late 1970s. To most residents, it seemed like a nice thing to do. Nobody meant to plant the seeds for a social transformation.”

So begins “The Ordeal of Immigration in Wausau,” a landmark magazine story detailing a moment in Wausau’s history that might have been its lowest point in the now 40-year history of the Hmong in central Wisconsin. In 1994, when the story was published in the Atlantic Monthly, Wausau was just barely beginning to heal from a bitter, polarizing fight about how schools should deal with the rapidly rising population of Hmong immigrants.

A “60 Minutes” profile followed the story in the Atlantic. Where the magazine story was lengthy and well-crafted, the “60 Minutes” profile was a blunt instrument. The pages of the Wausau Daily Herald were filled with reactions, clarifications, hand-wringing and a strong sense of resentment at the way the national media outlet had used Wausau as a symbol for a larger debate, caricaturing the city in the process.

Twenty years later, though, even the Atlantic Monthly piece seems not so much prescient as dated. Its predictions didn’t come true, and it’s shot through with a sense of racial anxiety — southeast Asians are taking over this fine white city — that feels gross.

The author of the piece, Roy Beck, achieved national fame from it, and its publication set him on a career path that would make him arguably the nation’s leading anti-immigration voice, as founder and director of the advocacy group NumbersUSA. In a profile this month, The New York Times called him “perhaps the most powerful member of the small but vocal movement that has helped scuttle every effort at an immigration overhaul for nearly two decades.”

The piece that started it all for Beck, though, doesn’t really hold up. Shouldn’t that cause him to rethink his positions on immigration?

Someone should ask him. That someone, I decided, should be me.

‘I felt as if I couldn’t breathe’

The racial tension in Wausau in the 1990s, occasioned by an increase in southeast Asian immigrants, was very real.

“It was terrible for me,” said Maysee Yang Herr. “I thought, ‘I cannot wait to get out of here. There’s got to be a better world out there.’”

Now 38, Yang Herr graduated from Wausau West High School in 1994. High school can be rough for anyone, of course, and anyone can feel like they want to get out of their hometowns. This was worse. Yang Herr talked about social circles in school that were strictly racially segregated, about racial slurs that flew in the hallways. Teachers weren’t trained to be sensitive to such problems — or, in the worst cases, found it too easy to cast the Hmong students as troublemakers while overlooking white instigators.

“I felt as if I couldn’t breathe” in Wausau, Yang Herr said, “and a lot of that had to do with racial tension.”

The first Hmong immigrants came to Wausau in the 1970s, granted refugee status for their role as American allies in the Vietnam War. Why were things so bad in the early ’90s?

There was increased immigration in Wausau as thousands of families were newly granted asylum in the U.S. from U.N. refugee camps in Thailand where some had lived for a decade. The Wausau School District needed to ramp up services for English language-learners and deal with new students, some of whom had received little formal education in refugee camps.

What set off the worst of the city’s racial tensions, though, and served as the centerpiece of “The Ordeal of Immigration in Wausau,” was the controversial plan to change neighborhood schools to what the Wausau School District called “partner schools.” In 1993, schools switched to a system that consolidated grade levels and required some increased busing for students with the explicit aim of more evenly distributing Hmong-speaking children among their English-speaking, white peers.

“Teachers moved everything, their entire classrooms,” said Steve Miller, who was then principal at John Marshall Elementary School. “It reminded me of the TV show M*A*S*H. You packed up everything and you bugged out.”

When the teachers bugged out, though, the community as a whole flipped out. This was the nadir that Beck would write about: bitter fights, intense divisions in the community between those who opposed the switch to partner schools and those who believed it was best for students. Today, Miller calls the partner schools concept “educationally, very sound. But the community wasn’t ready for it.”

“As a district, maybe we should have done a better job communicating, but it was a freight train out of control,” Miller said.

The fighting and polarization — Miller talked about screaming matches at PTO meetings, family members who stopped speaking to each other — led to the successful recalls of Wausau School Board members and, after just one year, the restoration of neighborhood schools.

“Not too many people wanted to express their view about the influx of the Hmong population in the Wausau area,” said Peter Yang, executive director of the Wausau Area Hmong Mutual Association. The argument, instead, was “more about, ‘How do we provide the best-quality education for all children?’”

Here’s how Beck, who did not shy from discussing the problem in racial terms, put it in “The Ordeal of Immigration in Wausau”:

“English was becoming the minority spoken language in several schools. Many native-born parents feared that their children’s education was being compromised by the language-instruction confusion; many immigrant parents complained that their children couldn’t be assimilated properly in schools where the immigrant population was so high. For two years citizens were polarized by the prospect of busing — something that would have been inconceivable in 1980. Divisions deepened last September, when the school board initiated the busing, and again in December, when voters recalled (then-School Board President Fred) Prehn and four other board members, replacing them with a slate of anti-busing candidates. Community divisions are likely to persist, since busing supporters threaten lawsuits if the new board ends the busing.”

In some ways, this passage is a microcosm for the whole piece: an essentially accurate but anxiety-driven and racially tinged description of the problem followed by a prediction of a problem that never materialized.

Policy arguments, racial undercurrents

“You’re actually in Wausau now?” said Beck when I called. I had responded to a general available-for-comment email from NumbersUSA’s press agent, inviting media representatives to speak with Beck about President Obama’s latest immigration action.

It goes without saying that Beck opposes Obama’s executive action to stop deportation of a class of immigrants. At the moment, NumbersUSA is also agitating for Republicans to entirely shut off funding for the Department of Homeland Security in an attempt to get Obama to reverse the order.

It’s a busy time for NumbersUSA. Then again, the same could have been said about each time in the last decade that comprehensive immigration reform has been discussed in Washington.

“In essence, I formed a national organization out of that article,” Beck said of the 1994 piece. “The attention I got for writing that article led to a lot of things, including a book contract.” The book begot a book tour, and the tour got the attention of funders and gave him the connections to launch NumbersUSA.

The organization disavows the nativism or nationalism that inevitably animates many debates about immigration policy. In the “about us” section of NumbersUSA’s website is the disclaimer “‘No’ to immigrant bashing” that leads to an explanation of the non-nativist case against immigration. The group’s opposition to reform is not about culture, Beck said in our interview, but about numbers and labor markets. More unskilled immigration means a looser labor market, depressing wages for workers at the bottom.

It’s a solid economic theory with some support, though it is not unanimously agreed upon by social scientists. (A competing theory holds that by creating new economic activity at all levels, immigration tends to lift wages for all.) But Beck also opposes easing immigration rules for skilled workers, and at times he even seems to deny that anyoneopposes immigration out of cultural anxiety.

“That’s what we’ve been working on all these years,” he said of NumbersUSA, “to get the numbers back down to a level where immigrants are valued and they can thrive.”

Still, a clear racial undercurrent exists. It’s what led a source in the recent New York Times story to say that Beck “play(s) footside with extremists” and “provides cover for the bad guys.”

Consider this striking passage from “The Ordeal of Immigration in Wausau”:

“Even if the influx slows, southeast Asians may become the majority population in Wausau well within the present residents’ lifetimes. In this, Wausau is not unique but only an indicator of the demographic effects of current immigrant streams in the nation as a whole.”

More than virtually anything else in the piece, these sentences make explicit the sense of what I think it’s fair to call racial paranoia.

Sure, Wausau’s population and the nation’s are becoming more diverse. In 1980, the U.S. Census found Wausau to be 99 percent white. By 2010, it was 83 percent white; Asians, the largest ethnic minority in Wausau, made up a little more than 11 percent of the population. We are still a long, long way from seeing a Wausau that is majority-Asian.

And so what if it were? The idea of a majority-Asian Wausau would only be worrisome if the southeast Asian population also never integrated, never saw upward social mobility, never found employment or a place in the fabric of the community — in other words, if Wausau’s Hmong failed to follow the path followed by every previous generation of American immigrants.

Quite obviously, none of that has been the case.

Two decades later, it is clear that Hmong Americans have followed exactly the pattern of German or Polish immigrants in the early 20th century: A sometimes-rocky transition and an older generation that is not terribly assimilated, followed by a bootstrapping generation of workers whose kids are Americans.

Of (white) Wausau natives, Beck wrote in 1994, “Many sensed that their way of life is slipping away.”

But our way of life didn’t slip away. The community got more interesting.

So: What if the entire premise of the article is wrong?

Beck, who is genial on the phone and an extremely smart person, has a couple of ways of answering this question. First: “The fact that (Wausau) overcame it or adjusted? That’s great,” Beck said. “But why should any community be forced to have to work so hard?”

Beck’s second answer is a bit more concrete. It is that the key to successful immigration policy is a “time out” period following periods of high immigration. His goal, he said, is not to keep communities from changing but to control the rate of change. Since Wausau’s Hmong population tended to swell only as new waves of immigrants were granted refugee status, it had time to properly adjust to the population’s needs and allow cultural assimilation to take place and the local economy and political systems to adjust.

I guess. Still, when I hear Beck speak about the American ordeal of immigration right now, I keep thinking about how that in 1994 he simply couldn’t envision a world where Wausau not only adapted to the needs of its Hmong residents but also came to regard them as a fundamental part of the community. But that is what happened.

If Wausau was a microcosm of a national issue in 1994, why shouldn’t it be today?

Homecoming

Maysee Yang Herr left Wausau in 1994 for college in Whitewater. She would get a master’s degree and then a Ph.D. from Indiana University.

“I found people, Asians and non-Asians, who were more accepting of the person I was,” she said. “I began to find the words to articulate my feelings and the experiences I had.”

Always a high achiever in school, she became an academic. And in 2008, to no one’s surprise more than her own, she moved back to Wausau, taking a job as an education professor at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. Now, once again, central Wisconsin is home.

“Me coming back was intentional,” Yang Herr said. “I came from this community. I had a better understanding about why I felt the emotions I felt.

“(Wausau) feels different,” she said, than it did then, “but there’s still a part of what existed then that does exist now. … We still have a ways to go.”

Robert Mentzer is regional opinion editor for Gannett Central Wisconsin Media. Contact: rmentzer@gannett.com, 715-845-0604; on Twitter:@robertmentzer.