'California dream' beckons Asian refugees to resettle

In tiny, landlocked Laos, Vang Neng was first a farmer and then a soldier, before the final 1975 victory of the communist Pathet Lao. Like many Hmong people, he had abandoned traditional nomadic ''slash and burn'' agriculture to join pro-American forces against the Vietnam-backed Pathet Lao.

Vang Neng says it has been three years since he arrived as a refugee in this sleepy little city of 43,300. He is one of more than 200 Hmong who have followed family connections, church resettlement assistance, and available factory jobs to Fitchburg, some 40 miles west of Boston.

But, like four other Hmong families who are said to have left Fitchburg in the last few weeks, Vang Neng says he has a California dream. He will move West with his wife and six children as soon as friends notify him by telephone that housing there is ready.

The Fitchburg exodus parallels the movement of thousands of Hmong and other Indochinese refugees from places of first US settlement in a ''secondary migration'' - often to California.

As many as 28 percent of the 640,000 Indochinese refugees in the United States have moved in this secondary migration, according to Dr. Linda Gordon of the US office of Refugee Resettlement in Washington, D.C. ''California is the magnet they come to. They rarely leave California,'' she says, adding that the Hmong are concentrating in California's Central Valley.

Hard-pressed local officials in parts of California and other destinations are coping with overcrowded schools, competition for scarce jobs, and a refugee welfare burden that increasingly falls on local, not federal, authorities. These are a few of the reasons why city, county, and federal governments are stepping up efforts to meet this problem.

In Fitchburg, Vang Veng uses broken, nearly nonexistent English, and an interpreter, to explain his California dream:

''I know from letters and telephone calls that in California I can get three or four more years of cash aid without working, and three or four hours of free English lessons a day. They will also let three or four families rent and share a house for only $250 a month.''

Vang Neng says he earns $3.75 an hour as a janitor in a Fitchburg nursing home, and pays $240 a month to rent a five-room apartment for his family. ''Here , they refuse to rent a house to three or four families. They tell you it's taken, but you still see the 'for rent' sign the next day. So housing costs much more here,'' he says.

''In the beginning, I hoped I could learn English in Fitchburg, and get a better job here. But now the government aid is over, and I must work full time, so I have no time to study English, even though English lessons are free.''

In all US states, 18 months of federal assistance is available to all qualified refugees, with the refugee not obligated to work. When that expires, refugees are eligible for state and local welfare or child-support benefits according to state and local qualifications, according to federal, California, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island refugee officials. But the refugees' own information ''grapevine,'' stretching across the country, sometimes misinterprets complex and differing state and local regulations. Refugees conclude that the length of federal support varies from one state to another.

Thus, some Hmong interviewed in Massachusetts and Rhode Island maintain they have heard that in California the pre-1982 program of 36 months of federal aid is still in effect.

But the grapevine sometimes discourages secondary migration. Hmong leaders in Rhode Island say that migration to California from the Hmong resettlement center of Providence has at least temporarily halted. The reason: Would-be migrants have heard that several families of Hmong in St. Paul, Minn., were forced to head back to Minnesota after failing to qualify for welfare in California.

In California's Central Valley Merced County, some 7,000 of nearly 100,000 residents are refugees - and an estimated 90 percent of the refugees are Hmong. Board of Supervisors member Ann Klinger says refugees are arriving from 19 states, including Oregon, Maine, Massachusetts, Washington, and Colorado. She says there has been nearly a tripling of the number of refugees in the county since the secondary influx was recognized as a problem last fall.

Supervisor Klinger notes this has posed a special burden for an area where many of the jobs are in seasonal migrant farm labor. The unemployment rate is sometimes more than 20 percent. She has warned that ''anything is possible'' if tension over jobs grows between the refugees and the Hispanic-American migratory farm workers organized by Caesar Chavez's United Farm Workers.

Families with children are eligible for federal- and state-backed Aid to Families with Dependent Children funds (AFDC). Refugees enrolled for these funds in Central Valley counties have tripled in about a year, according to Pat Craig of the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Counties. She points out the burden is greater because the average refugee family on AFDC has five or six members, compared with 2.6 for other families receiving this aid. But refugees without children are also a burden on the counties, since much financial aid must come from the counties with no federal contribution.

With an estimated 7,000 mostly Hmong refugees in Merced County, 15,000 in Fresno County, and 10,000 more in San Joaquin County, the burden on education, housing, medical, and other services in these sparsely populated agricultural areas has caused some rethinking.

With aid from the National Association of Counties, local authorities are lobbying the federal government's Department of Heath and Human Services to provide special funding to help county and state meet the challenges of secondary migration.

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