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Local lawyer, once a refugee from Laos, gives back to the Hmong Community

Mee Moua heads Hmong Bar Association

It was more than 26 years ago that Twin Cities attorney Mee Moua and her family fled their home in Laos, but the memories are still vivid.


Born: Xieng Khouang, Laos; June 30, 1969

Personal: Husband, Nha Yee Chang; one child, Chase Yeeb Chang

Education: University of Minnesota Law School, J.D., 1997; Lyndon Baines Johnson School of Public Affairs, University of Texas, M.P.Aff., 1994; B.A., (Public Policy) Brown University, Rhode Island, 1992

Employment: Associate Attorney, Leonard, Street & Deinard, 1997 – present

Professional Associations: American Bar Association, American Immigrants Lawyers Association, Minnesota State Bar Association, Hmong Bar Association, Hennepin County Bar Association

Hobbies: Soccer, reading, doing Hmong embroidery and cross-stitch

Moua’s father, who was trained as a medic to assist injured U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam conflict, was considered “pro-American” and was forced to leave his homeland after the war ended. Packing what possessions they could carry, Moua and her family fled to a refugee camp in Thailand, where they spent the next three years. In 1978, with the assistance of the United Nations, Moua and her family resettled in the United States, where they have remained ever since.

Despite her initial desire to become a doctor, Moua eventually realized — in part through her failing grade in chemistry — that her true talent lay in the law. With the full support of her family, Moua went to law school and is now a successful attorney with the Minneapolis law firm of Leonard, Street & Deinard. Her busy law practice has not caused Moua to forsake the Hmong community, however, and she continues to provide advice, support and guidance to those who need it.

As a law student, Moua was involved in the creation of Minnesota’s Hmong Bar Association just over six years ago. She has been active in the group since its inception and took over as chair last year.

Moua recently spoke with Minnesota Lawyer associate editor Michelle Lore about the Hmong Bar Association, as well as some of the issues facing the Hmong community in Minnesota.

You are currently the chair of the Hmong Bar Association. How did the organization get started in Minnesota and when did that occur?

It was a small group of law students and three lawyers who started the bar association in the spring of 1995. I was a law student then and was the student representative for the two years I was in law school. There were, at the time [the organization was started], three licensed Hmong attorneys in Minnesota. … They were the first and the only three that we knew of in all of the U.S. There was also a group of Hmong students — three at William Mitchell, three or four at Hamline, and three of us at the University of Minnesota — that often had informal gatherings just to get to know each other and to talk about school and projects and things like that. Eventually, we came up with the idea of having the association formalized. … We also had a number of non-Hmong friends … including [former Hennepin County Bar Association president] Bradley Thorson and [former Ramsey County Bar Association president] Jon Duckstad … who came to several of the meetings and were greatly enthusiastic about having a Hmong Bar Association. They were mentors to the program to get it going.

How many members are in the Hmong Bar Association currently and what does membership require?

It is open to both Hmong and non-Hmong [people]. … We’ve got three different categories [of members]. We’ve got lawyers and nonlawyers, and then we’ve got law students. We even have, in our nonlawyers group, people like paralegals and legal secretaries who join only because they want to support the bar association. Right now we have about 25 members on the mailing list. Of that I would say 10 or 12 of them are pretty active and come regularly to the meetings. Our student numbers go back and forth, but we have about 12 students right now who actively participate.

What does the Hmong Bar Association do?

Our mission is to advocate and facilitate opportunities for Hmong lawyers to participate both in activities and issues in the legal community and … in issues arising out of the broader community that may involve Hmong [people]. The third prong, if the opportunity arises, is to be able to comment on things like judicial selection or judicial elections.

Out of that broad mission, the activities that we choose to engage in are twofold. One is to look at the lawyers and what their needs are; that includes brand-new law students who have graduated and who are looking to take the bar. [We look at] what we can do to facilitate or help them in the bar examination process. In terms of lawyers, during our monthly meetings we look at issues like … whether it is time to report for CLEs, what interesting CLEs are out there. [The bar association] really acts as an informational clearing house, [as well as] a network and referral system.

From the student perspective … we offer mentoring and the opportunity to ask questions. It’s been my goal to do one social event each quarter that will bring together students and attorneys to mingle and hang out and network.

You have written articles and given presentations on legal issues affecting Hmong immigrants. What do you believe are some of the largest issues facing the Hmong community in Minnesota?

Anybody who reads the paper can’t miss the fact that domestic issues have grown a lot and become much more visible in our community. … At one point, when we were a community in transition and had the refugee identity, at least people could say “I am a refugee and these are the challenges I am going through.” But it’s been 25 years and as a community we’ve moved beyond the refugee identity and into the integrated phase of living in this country. As part of that, people are expected … to be self-sufficient. … The buffering system that used to be in place when we were refugees to soften the challenges in living here has gone away. Now families are on their own, but still continue with some of these struggles. …

A lot of Hmong families live in very stressful situations that seemingly are not visible. [Many] don’t know how to make the connection to healthcare. You may have a mom and dad whose children are truant; you may have
a mother or father who may be having mental health issues, but they don’t know how to bridge into the resources to take care of themselves. That culminates into a lot of domestic situations that have [broader] implications … like criminal court … family court … or immigration/ deportation court. … There are a lot of legal issues that break off of [the failure to get help].

Is language part of the barrier to many Hmong people getting the resources they need?

Language is [a barrier] but not necessarily the whole reason for it. Part of it is psychological. … A number of people who are economically self-sufficient, when faced with challenges like mental health issues or marital issues [won’t seek help]. It is not a cultural thing to say “I am going to seek help” or “I am going to counseling to address it.” In the mainstream community there are institutions people look to — such as a pastor or a church or a counselor or a doctor — as a way to identify individuals to intervene. In the Hmong community, it has always been the extended family that acted as the intervenor in these kinds of situations. Nowadays … you don’t have multiple generations living in one household. … If they were living with other adults in the household, our traditional method of intervention was that these other people act as witnesses to the marital issues that are going on; they report to the extended family, and the extended family intervenes to make sure that it does not escalate. It’s not happening anymore because more and more Hmong families are becoming more nuclear and immediate family oriented and less multi-generational in how they choose to live together.

As a student in the master’s program at Lyndon Baines Johnson School of Public Affairs, you authored a report entitled “Hmong Adolescent Gangs in St. Paul, Minnesota: Evaluating the Situation and the Community Response.” What conclusion did you draw in writing the report?

Adolescent gangs as a phenomenon are not new or unique to the Hmong community. … For every generation of immigrants that came [to this country] you have this phenomenon. … For the Hmong community it is important that they understand that there is nothing intrinsically wrong about the Hmong culture that has given rise to this. …

One factor giving rise to Hmong gangs is that in the Hmong culture … there wasn’t this extended time period of being a teenager or adolescent. In the U.S. that opportunity was there and parents didn’t know how to deal with it. They expected their children to be like them — very obedient. The next minute they are supposed to be adults and responsible for themselves. … Hmong parents were not equipped to deal with [their children’s acts of adolescent rebelliousness] … and as a result came down very hard on their kids to the point where the children then broke away and went the other way. The young people feel like their parents are being too controlling and that is what leads them into delinquency. This is not unique to the Hmong community, but the way the parents are equipped to address it and how they address it becomes a cultural issue [that] explains why some of the kids get into gang activity.

Another factor that gave rise to the gang situation is the school system’s inability to address conflict at school. You have historic enemies going to school with one another.

The news media has highlighted the custom by Hmong parents to marry off their daughters at a very young age to Hmong men. What is your opinion on the prosecution of these Hmong husbands for statutory rape?

The [Hmong] community doesn’t have that kind of cultural preference in place. We don’t have a specific ritual that has to be performed by a certain age. … In this day and age, Hmong parents are very adamant that their children are not going to marry before they finish high school … or even college.

The reason why it continues to happen is that … many [Hmong parents] themselves got married at the age of 13 or 14. In their mind, if it ever comes to the point where their daughter has to be married off at the age of 13 or 14, the parents’ understanding is that they are physically and psychologically mature enough to get married. [They are] just thinking about it in their own context and [don’t] understand that in this country a 13- or 14-year-old growing up here is not mature enough to be married. … We are beginning to see that many young boys and girls who did get married are now the wave of young adults who are getting divorced. So, within the community, many people are adamantly against that.

The reason why it still happens is that young adults don’t know how to [avoid] putting themselves into a situation where their parents lose face. Clearly young people today are sexually active … and all parents are against that because of the implications. In the Hmong culture in particular, it is especially bad if that fact becomes visible. So where young people are being forced to get married is [when their] conduct implies they have had sex. That is an implication that the daughter is no longer pure and that … she might be pregnant with [the male’s] child. … The only way [the male] can take care of the disrespect he has put upon the daughter and on her family is to marry her and have her embraced into [his] family.

[Therefore,] a lot of Hmong parents, even though they are adamantly against it, and even though they see the statistics and know their children should not be getting married, when they see that, something cultural in their mind just clicks and they start the [marriage] ball rolling. …

That brings me to your question. … Depending on the circumstances, my response has always been that you know what the consequences are. In our community, even if this continues to happen, you know what the consequences are and when you choose to act you will receive those consequences. If the court decides you violated the law [then] you violated the law.

This is a hard issue in the community to address because there are so many different nuances. It isn’t as simple as just marrying off your 14-year-old to some 20- or 35-year-old. There are a lot of different scenarios that get played out.

One of the hot issues in the justice system right now is the need for more interpreters in the courtroom. Has lack of adequate interpreters been a problem for the Hmong community? And if so, in what way?

There aren’t enough interpreters and there aren’t enough effective and trained interpreters. The Hmong language has two dialects; there is the white Hmong dialect and the blue Hmong dialect. So even in situations where you have a very good interpreter, if that interpreter speaks only the white Hmong dialect, but you’ve got someone sitting there who speaks blue Hmong, that interpreter is useless. There is some terminology that just doesn’t translate, even within those two dialects.

Unless the interpreters are older and more experienced, they can hear the Hmong and can translate it into English, but they won’t be able to adequately translate the English into the Hmong. … When I have interpreted in court, I’ve been told that I ought to just act like a machine. Well, you can’t do that because oftentimes, when you have a legal concept, you have to explain the context of the legal concept before you can ask the question, or else they won’t know how to answer. Judges and courts don’t allow that extra explanation. So not on
ly do we need competent and mature interpreters, and more of them, but I also think that there should be … some kind of a conference where the legal context is explained to the person. This is where I have seen lawyers who have had experience working with the Hmong community make a big difference in terms of quality representation of their clients. They learn how to ask the questions in a way that makes it easier for the interpreter to translate the questions.

What is the toughest part of being a Hmong lawyer in Minnesota right now?

The community is experiencing a lot of issues. Many of them are not necessarily legal, but because [Hmong lawyers] are seen as individuals with a license to solve problems, many of us get calls on a daily basis. I must spend at least one to two hours a day just fielding questions or getting calls from people in the community to address issues that are too small to send them to a lawyer but big enough where they need someone to look at documents. So sometimes I will do my 10 or 12 hours here at the firm and then I will go home and have people meet me after dinner and they will be at my house from 8 [p.m.] to 10 [p.m.] …

Most of the Hmong lawyers end up doing that. We get approached in a number of different places and settings. There is an expectation to give back to the community, so what we end up doing is a lot of social service and “hand-holding,” a lot of advice-giving — not necessarily legal advice — but a lot of advice-giving because people see us as a resource.

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