Laotian immigration to North America was almost totally the product of the Vietnam War (1964–75). According to the 2000 U.S. census and the 2001 Canadian census, 198,203 Americans and 16,950 Canadians claimed Laotian descent. In addition, 186,310 Americans were from the Laotian minority Hmong. Unlike earlier post-1960s immigrant groups that tended to cluster in large cities, Laotian refugees were often settled in medium-sized cities, especially in California, including Fresno, San Diego, Sacramento, and Stockton. The Hmong were widely spread but most prominent in California and Minnesota. The largest Laotian concentrations in Canada were in Toronto and Montreal. In 2001, there were fewer than 600 Hmong in Canada.
Laos is a landlocked country occupying 89,000 square miles in Southeast Asia. It is bordered by Myanmar and China on the north, Vietnam on the east, Cambodia on the south, and Thailand on the west. In 2002, the population was estimated at 5,635,967. The people are ethnically divided between Lao Lourn (68 percent), Lao Theung (22 percent), Lao Soung, including Hmong and Yao (9 percent). About 60 percent are Buddhist, and 40 percent practice animist or other religions Laos gained its independence from the Khmer Empire (modern Cambodia) during the 14th century, peaking in regional influence late in the 17th century. Laos became a French protectorate in 1893 but regained independence as a constitutional monarchy in 1949. Conflicts among neutralist, Communist, and conservative factions created a chaotic political situation. Armed conflict increased after 1960. Three factions formed a coalition government in June 1962, with neutralist Prince Souvanna Phouma as premier. With aid from North Vietnam, Communist groups stepped up attacks against the government, and Laos was gradually drawn into the cold war
conflict in Southeast Asia. In 1975, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic was proclaimed, with thousands of Laotians fleeing to refugee camps in Thailand.
There is no official record of Laotian immigration to the United States prior to 1975, though there was a small number of professionals who had come before that time. In 1975, those who had aided the United States and South Vietnam during the Vietnam War fled to refugee camps in Thailand, which housed more than 300,000 by the mid- 1980s. As the condition of Laotian refugees became more widely known, there was general support in both the United States and Canada for assisting them. The U.S. government passed a special measure, the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act (1975), that eased entry into the country. In 1978, the Canadian government designated the Indochinese one of three admissible refugee classes. Between 1976 and 1981, more than 120,000 Laotian refugees were admitted to the United States and almost 8,000 to Canada. Because most were aided in resettlement by private organizations, they tended to be spread widely throughout both the United States and Canada. Between 1992 and 2002, an average of about 3,000 immigrants from Laos arrived in the United States annually, though the numbers declined significantly after 1997. Fewer than 1,700 of Canada’s 14,000 Laotian immigrants came after 1990.