Emma Moua (center) practices a traditional Hmong jumping dance during rehearsal on November 7, 2022, in Tracy, Minnesota. Credit: Ben Hovland | MPR News

Asian American lawmakers from Minnesota are urging the U.S. Census Bureau to reclassify several Asian American ethnicities, expressing concerns that the current classifications harm marginalized communities and erase their experiences. 

Seven legislators, members of the Minnesota Asian Pacific Caucus, wrote the Census in June that they “rely on accurate data to make good policy decisions,” and were “especially concerned about the impact this misclassification will have in 2020 Census Data Products.”

The lawmakers and a host of Hmong and Southeast Asian community organizations are asking that the Census Bureau work with community groups, state demographers, and other major stakeholders to reclassify four Asian American groups: 

  • Move Hmong from the “East Asian” classification to the “Southeast Asian” classification
  • Lahu from “Other Asian” to “Southeast Asian” 
  • Tai Dam from “Other Asian” to “Southeast Asian”
  • Urdu from “Other Asian” to “South Asian” 

Governments use census data to help them understand where and how they should allocate resources based on a community’s needs and socio-economic background. Minnesota lawmakers and advocates are concerned that the current classifications ignore each group’s specific needs because the classifications are either too broad or lump them in with other ethnicities with vastly different socio-economic standing.

The Census Bureau has classified Hmong people as East Asian and Lahu, Tai Dam, and Urdu people as “Other Asian” since 2015, a fact lawmakers and activists discovered when the bureau released its redistricting data summary file two years ago. 

The clash over the classification of the four groups, which all have roots in China, raises questions about the quality of the Census Bureau’s engagement with marginalized Asian American communities just prior to the long-awaited release of more data from the 2020 Census. The letter from the Minnesota legislators was first reported by AsAm News.

The Census Bureau’s classifications speak volumes about who its employees did and did not have advising their work, said Representative Liz Lee, DFL-St. Paul, who signed off on the June letter.

Former congressional staffer Liz Lee photographed in 2022 during her campaign for the Minnesota House of Representatives. She was elected to represent the East Side of St. Paul, where she grew up. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

“Census started this new initiative with new classifications and subregions, and they didn’t do proper stakeholder engagement—or they weren’t transparent with what they’re doing,” said Lee, who represents the East Side of St. Paul, home to many Hmong residents. 

The Census Bureau did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

“What we are seeing is a real threat in seeing our communities being institutionally erased and divested in as a result of this miscoding and misclassification,” said Quyen Dinh, executive director of the national civil rights organization, Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC), in Washington, D.C. “It really violates the principle of self-identification, which for us is really important because self-determination is all about how we see ourselves in this country.” 

This is the first time ever that the Census Bureau is releasing data sets, or “products” as the bureau calls them, with regional classifications. For example, people will no longer be categorized only as Asian, but rather as East Asian, South Asian, Southeast Asian, and so on. The bureau is preparing to release products on demographics and housing in the coming months.

The decision to release regional classification data, Dinh said, is questionable to begin with. SEARAC prefers the use of disaggregated data, which does not classify different ethnic groups together in broader categories. 

But with the current classifications, the regional data may be actively harmful, critics say. The classification of Hmong people as East Asian alongside Japanese, Korean, and Chinese people is a prime example, they warn. 

Lee Pao Xiong, Director of the Center for Hmong Studies at Concordia University in St. Paul, noted that while Hmong people originated in China and that many still live there today, Hmong Americans mainly came to the United States from Southeast Asian countries during and after the Vietnam War—long after many East Asian immigrant communities had established themselves. The Hmong have lived throughout Southeast Asia for at least several hundred years.

Lee Pao Xiong, director of the Center for Hmong Studies at Concordia University in St. Paul, pictured in September 2021. Credit: Evan Frost | MPR News

“There’s a huge disparity and discrepancies in terms of education, in terms of economics, when you compare the Hmong and people from China and people from Korea and Japan,” Xiong said. “We came here as refugees.”

According to data from SEARAC, nearly 60 percent of Hmong Americans are low income and one in four live in poverty. In addition, 56 percent of Hmong American high school graduates have not completed bachelor degrees compared to 32 percent of all Asian Americans. 

To a number of community leaders, the categorization of Hmong people as East Asian obfuscates the particulars of their recent history and path to the United States. 

That sentiment is also evident in the requests for more specificity in the classification of the Urdu, Tai Dam, and Lahu, who are all currently classified in the “Other Asian” category instead of regional categories that better reflect where their populations predominantly immigrated from. Like the Hmong, many Tai Dam also immigrated to the United States after the Vietnam War.

Minnesota’s state demographer Susan Brower agrees. In a letter sent to the director of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in April, Brower and senior demographer Eric Guthrie wrote that the categorization of Hmong people as East Asian was of “particular concern” and asked the office to change course. The office sets the minimum standards for race and ethnicity data collection that the Census must meet; those standards were last updated 25 years ago.

“While the Hmong population did originate in China, the vast majority of foreign-born Hmong residents came to the U.S. from Southeast Asia where their families have lived for centuries,” they wrote. 

Not only do the Census Bureau’s classifications have an impact on whether people feel seen and valued by their government, but they can have serious effects on policy making decisions as well—a point that was particularly clear during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“In Minnesota, one of our partners actually did a research study finding that the majority of Asian Americans who were impacted by COVID were actually Hmong, but there were no resources that were specifically targeted at the Hmong community,” Dinh said. “This is just a snapshot at how the lack of data has led to a lack of investment in our communities for decades.”

Lee and Dinh both said that in their own outreach to Hmong community groups and leaders around the classification issue, they didn’t hear a single person say they wanted Hmong people classified as East Asian. To that point, in the 2021 Census-administered American Community Survey, 95 percent of Hmong respondents identified themselves as Southeast Asian. 

Given that, Dinh said, the current classification risks alienating people who participated in the Census in hopes that the government would use the data to better help their communities. 

“Why would people care to be counted during the time of COVID and during the time of anti-Asian hate when they are going to be invisibilized anyway?” Dinh said. “This issue isn’t just about a checkbox or being counted correctly, it’s really about understanding the power of the Hmong community. 

“This is an easy fix for this community’s very long-term inequities to be addressed, and the Census Bureau and the American government owes that to this community of refugees to make this correction.” 

The Census is not required to collect specific data on the four communities advocates believe have been misclassified. But the Census Bureau, Dinh said, has long gone above and beyond the requirements laid out for the bureau, making its classification decisions for this Census data release all the more surprising. 

Reclassifying the four groups could potentially delay the release of Census data that was already pushed back by the pandemic, but the push for reclassification isn’t over. 

The Congressional Asian Caucus is looking at the classification issue as well, said Lee, who worked in Congress as an aide to Senator Amy Klobuchar, Representative Barbara Lee, and then-Representative Keith Ellison before being elected to the Minnesota Legislature last year.

“If people make enough noise, I think they will change,” Xiong said. “And if they don’t, we’ll make more noise.”

Abe Asher is a journalist whose work covering protest, police, and politics has appeared in The Nation, VICE News, the Portland Mercury, and other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @abe_asher.