Za Xiong Moua and Christine Moua are among the members of the Hmong American community alleging discrimination by Siskiyou County. (ACLU of Northern California)
SACRAMENTO – For years, Siskiyou County officials and the Siskiyou Sheriff’s Department have threatened, targeted, and intimidated Hmong American and other Asian American community members in an effort to isolate them and drive them out of the region, according to a new class-action lawsuit led by four Asian American community members.
Filed on Aug. 3, the lawsuit claims that county officials have waged a systematic campaign of racist hostility and persecution, including restricting Asian Americans’ right to water and executing unlawful traffic stops, search and seizure practices, and property liens that are blatantly aimed at Asian Americans. Last summer, a Hmong American man was shot and killed in the area by officers at a wildfire evacuation checkpoint.
The county has denied the allegations of racial bias.
Siskiyou County is in the northernmost part of California. Its county seat is Yreka and its highest point is Mount Shasta.
According to the complaint, Siskiyou County officials and Sheriff Jeremiah LaRue have made their intentions explicit in public meetings and documents, characterizing Asian Americans as people “who thumb their nose at our society, at our way of life” and singling out “the Hmong residents” at a Board of Supervisors meeting before asking for a vote of “those county residents present.”
Community advocates say that the Sheriff’s Department targets Asian American drivers at a rate 12 times greater than the Asian American driving-age population. At the same time, as the region faces hotter temperatures and more extreme wildfires, Siskiyou County officials have allegedly created a humanitarian crisis that disproportionately deprives Asian American residents of water needed for health and hygiene and to protect themselves and their homes from wildfires.
“Like many of our neighbors, my husband, my son, and I love the beauty of Siskiyou County and want to enjoy a safe, healthy life with our friends and family,” said Mai Nou Vang, one of the Hmong American plaintiffs in the case who owns property in the area. “Last year, my family and I were driving outside of Shasta Vista and were stopped by two sheriff’s deputies. For a half hour, we were questioned about what we were doing and where we had come from. They searched our car without a warrant, and then finally let us go with a ticket to fix a light cover.
“My story isn’t unique. So many of my Asian neighbors have been stopped like this by the police while we try to go about our days, run errands, and visit loved ones.”
Siskiyou County is home to fewer than 45,000 people, of whom 85 percent are white and 1.6 percent are Asian American, according to the latest U.S. Census. Many Asian American residents in Siskiyou County are Hmong and came to the U.S. as refugees after fighting alongside the U.S. government in the Vietnam War.
The lawsuit filed with the Eastern District Court of California details the findings of a year-long investigation into the county’s treatment of Asian American residents, including interviews with community members, public records requests, and review of thousands of Board of Supervisors and Sheriff Department documents. Some of the findings listed in the lawsuit:
• Over 28 percent of traffic stops conducted by the Sheriff’s Department in 2021 were of Asian American drivers. The department stops drivers of Asian descent at a rate nearly 12 times greater than their proportion of the driving-age population.
• An Asian American in Siskiyou County is about 17 times more likely to be pulled over by the Sheriff’s Department than a white individual, and the median stop length for Asian American drivers was 56 percent longer than for other drivers.
• The Sheriff’s Department stops Asian Americans during the day, when a driver’s race is more readily visible, at a nearly 60 percent higher rate than at night.
• Several water ordinances have created a humanitarian crisis that severely impacts Asian American residents, particularly in Shasta Vista, Dorris, and Macdoel. While a judge recently issued a preliminary injunction against two of the ordinances, the county’s measures have collectively degraded community members’ health, resulted in the loss of livestock and gardens, left people unable to fend off wildfires, and forced many to leave their homes in the past year.
• Over 80 percent of property liens issued by the county have been issued against Asian American residents, many of which are more than double the assessed property value.
“Since more Hmong residents began moving to Siskiyou County in 2015, county officials and Sheriff LaRue have orchestrated a sweeping campaign to push out the Asian American community,” said Emi Young, staff attorney at the ACLU Foundation of Northern California. “The actions by Siskiyou County officials and the Sheriff’s Department follow a long history of law enforcement in the region criminalizing and targeting communities of color, including when white residents in the county convened to address the so-called ‘Chinese evil’ a century and a half ago.
“In 2022, as more and more people are reckoning with systemic racism in our country, Siskiyou County officials are choosing to create a humanitarian crisis, persecute Hmong Americans and Asian Americans, and create divisions among neighbors.”
Earlier this year, a federal judge in Sacramento affirmed that the preliminary injunction for two of the discriminatory water ordinances must stay in place after the county attempted to end the injunction. In her ruling, the judge wrote that “the passage of time has erased neither the concerning language county officials used to describe their purposes nor the racial animosity Hmong people in Shasta Vista have faced.”
“We are a group of people who came to the United States in the late ’70s as refugees because of our involvement in helping the U.S. during the Vietnam War. Many of us have since moved to Siskiyou County because we love the landscape and rural nature of the region,” said Peter Thao, Hmong community member in Siskiyou County. “We want to build a good rapport with the community here and the local government.
“Hmong people are very family-oriented. We are not here to cause hardship or burden to this community. I would like to see our communities understand each other better. If the local government would give us a seat at the table, we could work together to build a better relationship between our communities.”
The complaint seeks to hold Siskiyou officials accountable for systematic racial targeting and for the violation of Asian Americans’ U.S. and California constitutional rights, including an order prohibiting Siskiyou County and LaRue from engaging in race, color, and ethnicity-based discrimination with safeguards to ensure that such discrimination does not continue in the future.
In a statement to The Sacramento Bee last year, LaRue said marijuana growers were “hostile” to first responders during fire evacuations, and “the firefighters didn’t feel very safe due to some of the comments that were made.”
“Like some of their most vocal constituents, they view Asian Americans as a monolithic group of which every single person is part of a violent drug cartel and blame the county’s widespread cannabis cultivation on Asian Americans in explicitly racialized terms,” the complaint reads.
The plaintiffs are represented by the ACLU Foundation of Northern California, Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus, and Covington & Burling LLP.