On April 15, dozens of people packed into a cramped Sacramento, California, courthouse. The group, largely consisting of Hmong American families from California’s Siskiyou County, had driven more than five hours to watch a hearing that would determine whether their community could continue to access the water they needed to live their lives. 

“The entire galley was packed,” said John Do, an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) attorney who attended the hearing. “There wasn’t even seating for me.” 

Siskiyou County is located in Northern California, adjacent to the Oregon border. Last year, the county’s Board of Supervisors banned trucks carrying more than 100 gallons of water from certain roads, claiming it was an emergency ordinance to limit water used to cultivate illegal cannabis. They’re also claiming that Hmong Americans growing cannabis are contributing to the state’s drought, though there is no scientific evidence to back that up. The average American family uses more than 300 gallons of water a day, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 

The ordinance targeted largely Hmong American areas which rely on water trucks for basic water needs, and caused a humanitarian crisis. Hmong Americans reported constant thirst, dying farm animals, and only having enough water to bathe once a week. 

“The idea of having to choose between—am I going to sustain these animals I’ve purchased, or am I going to be able to bathe this week? Those are the sort of things we’ve heard about as a consequence of the water ordinance,” said Emi Young, another ACLU lawyer on the case. 

A judge issued a temporary injunction against the ordinance, but the county is currently appealing the injunction by proposing the same ban for the entire county. The judge heard the arguments on April 15, but as of May 4, she has not made a decision. Siskiyou’s Hmong Americans and their allies believe the county plans to target Hmong Americans again, just not on paper. 

“The county kept insisting the case was about cannabis,” Do said. “[The county’s representation] spoke as if everyone was part of a violent drug cartel essentially, and I think that language is indicative of how they’ve been treated.” 

Racism is rampant in the county. Asians—who are majority Hmong—make up 2.6% of Siskiyou County’s population, but 27.4% of all traffic stops in the county last year. In the past two years, the vast percentage of citations issued for cannabis cultivation and related property seizures affected Asians, despite there being white and Asian growers alike in Siskiyou. 

“It’s really scary,” said True Lee, an Hmong American who splits her time between Siskiyou and Minnesota. “You never know what you’re going to face when you leave your property. My mom ends up staying in as much as she can. She avoids going out at all costs.” 

Hmong Americans find a home in Siskiyou

Growing cannabis is legal in California, but Siskiyou’s regulations have made it nearly impossible to grow legally. 

“If the sheriff was really concerned about cannabis, there would be all kinds of enforcement going on throughout the county, and there’s very little in the non-Hmong areas,” said Glenn Katon, an attorney with Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus. 

White people have grown cannabis in Siskiyou since at least the late ‘60s without much incident, according to Margiana Petersen-Rockney, who co-published ethnographic research on cannabis farmers in the county. 

In the mid-2010s, Hmong Americans started to arrive. The cheap parcels of land and mountainous landscape drew many Hmong elders. 

“What I heard a lot, especially from the Hmong elders, was this was their retirement,” Petersen-Rockney said. “A lot of people from Minneapolis, Fresno, these cities, who wanted to get back to their agricultural roots and be able to grow gardens and live in kinship communities.” 

Initially, the existing community welcomed them, according to Wayne Walent, a medical marijuana activist and former member of the Hmong American and County Community Advisory Council. 

“We went to their parties, dances, they were coming to all of ours,” Walent said. “I think it was our sheriff, basically, that stirred it up.” 

Hostility, racial profiling, and law enforcement in Siskiyou

Walent is referring to former Sheriff Jon Lopey, who compared cannabis enforcement in Siskiyou to “war in a foreign country,” according to quoted statements in an amicus brief by the ACLU. 

However, Hmong community members say the racial hostility became even worse under Sheriff Jeremiah LaRue, who was elected in September 2020. 

“It was Sheriff LaRue who started saying it first, the Hmong community was cartels and stuff like that. White residents in Siskiyou, that’s when they started calling us cartels,” said Jaea Vang, a Hmong American who lives in neighboring Shasta County and has family in Siskiyou. “I don’t understand why they think it’s organized crime and assume everyone Hmong in Siskiyou is part of this cartel gang.” 

Sheriff Jeremiah LaRue has asked the white community in Siskiyou to help “choke” out Hmong Americans and to “eradicate this illness.” LaRue has also told small business owners not to sell to Hmong Americans. Lee said Hmong Americans in Siskiyou often have to drive over two hours just to get basic groceries.

“I’m so used to people flipping me off, that I just wave … I don’t know if they’re going to wave back or flip me off,” Lee said. 

Law enforcement in Siskiyou also raids properties under the guise of rooting out illicit cannabis growing. 

“They use that as a way to terrorize folks. They will go into homes,” Katon said. “They will go through personal belongings, things that could not have anything to do with cannabis.” 

Lee’s mother had her truck and water confiscated by law enforcement after dark under the water ordinance last year. Her mother was carrying 100 gallons in a container and a cooler with 20 gallons in it, putting her 20 gallons over the water limit. The police left Lee’s mother on the side of the road. 

“She was shaking and she was so scared. For weeks after that, she was still scared and affected by that entire experience,” Lee said. 

If the ordinance is put back in place, Hmong Americans and their supporters worry the community will face another humanitarian crisis. 

“[My mother has] made this her home,” Lee said. “She doesn’t plan to leave. That’s why I can’t really leave her behind. I don’t know who will be here to protect her.” 

Hmong Americans still face hostility regardless of the judge’s decision. Vang said it’s become almost impossible to put down roots in Siskiyou as a Hmong American. Her uncle, a Siskiyou resident, told her the county is preventing Hmong folks from getting P.O. boxes and is requiring some to pay around $300 a month for a “camping permit” to stay on their own private property. 

But for the Hmong who’ve made Siskiyou their home, leaving isn’t an option. 

“Deep in my heart, I know that the Hmong community … want to make this their home, and they’ve worked so hard. This is where they want to retire,” Lee said. “I just want everyone to be able to live together and be at peace.” 

Grace Deng is a freelance writer interested in race, identity and equity reporting. They study journalism, legal studies and Asian American Studies at Northwestern University. The Seattle native has also...