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Asian Americans focus of L.A. hearing Fresno County speaks to a presidential commission.

BY: Barbara Anderson THE FRESNO BEE - July 26, 2000, Wednesday

Asian Americans need jobs that pay a living wage and help buy homes and land to become self-reliant and successful, Fresno County community leaders told a presidential commission.

A lack of jobs that pay enough to support a family is the biggest deterrent to Hmong Americans moving off public assistance in Fresno County, said Silas Cha of the Fresno office of the Southeast Asian Resource Action Center.

Although Hmong Americans have become business owners, teachers, farmers and professionals, many remain in poverty. Approximately 29,000 live in the county, Cha said, and roughly 15,000 are receiving some form of public aid.

Without jobs to sustain them, hundreds of Hmong Americans have left Fresno in the last couple of years for Minnesota and North Carolina, where there are better wages and benefits, he said. "Fresno lags behind in creating those kinds of opportunities."

The need for employment development, affordable housing, farming support, child care and better access to health care are issues in Fresno, residents told President Clinton's Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders on Monday.

Monday's town hall meeting in Los Angeles was the first of four scheduled by the commission to take testimony from people across the country.

Fresno was picked with Los Angeles, San Diego and Sacramento as California cities participating in the first hearing.

Eight Fresnans offered testimony via a video conference while about 30 residents looked on at the federal Housing and Urban Development office in Fresno.

The commission will make recommendations to the president on concerns of the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities and suggestions for ways the federal government can help address those issues.

The next town hall meeting of the advisory commission will be in New York on Sept. 18.

"It's the first time in 25 years that the White House ever opened the door to us," said Toulu Thao, community builder at the Fresno HUD office who coordinated local participation in the commission hearing.

The plight of Hmong farmers in the Valley was a message Chukoa Thao wanted the commission to pass on to the president.

Although Hmong farmers in Fresno County are working 10,000 acres to 15,000 acres of land, 95% rent or lease the ground they farm, said Thao, director of the Hmong American Community Inc., a nonprofit organization developed to serve Hmong farmers.

And, he said, 70% of the farmers are renting homes because they don't have cash to buy and don't have traditional credit to qualify for bank loans. The federal government could help, Thao said, by assisting farmers in acquiring land and home loans.

"Credit to the Hmong means you owe somebody, and they don't want to feel like they owe anybody," he said. "But when you check their utilities, they're never late; they're always on time. We want them [loan officers] to look at that kind of stuff and how long they've lived in the Valley instead of looking at how many bank loans they have taken out."

The farmers also need training on newer farming techniques, such as the safe application of pesticides, Thao said, citing a lack of Hmong-speaking federal agriculture officials to provide training and education.

Cha, who joined the resource action center when it opened in Fresno in 1999 to provide support and advocacy for Southeast Asians, wants the federal government to recognize achievements and contributions of Asian Americans.

He is studying successful Hmong immigrants to determine what distinguishes them from those who are struggling. The results of the New Americans Project should be ready to share with the president's commission next year.

"We're looking at the special characteristics or help that made them successful," Cha said. "We're looking to see if there is a pattern."