As 2016 hopefuls arrive with pledges to block refugees from Syria, Vietnamese-American voters here respond with a conflicted mix of caution and compassion.
MANCHESTER, N.H. — Beyoncé needed no translation as several dozen members of the Vietnamese-American community here stood with their hands over their hearts for the U.S. national anthem, colorful dresses and satin pants covered by vests and sweaters on the cold morning.
They gathered Saturday at the Phuoc Dien Temple to honor Sens. Lindsey Graham and John McCain, one a 2016 hopeful and the other a former nominee who twice won the state’s GOP primary. McCain — and Graham by close association — is a hero to this community, having championed legislation that helped bring hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese to the U.S. in the wake of the Vietnam War.
“He’s a true war hero to us all!” the emcee, a petite woman named Chau Kelley, shouted into the microphone in the small room, drawing a standing ovation.
Kelley, who looks far younger than her 42 years, has lived in Hooksett, N.H., ever since she arrived in this county through the refugee program McCain spearheaded. She says her father, an officer in the Vietnamese military, was imprisoned by the Communists for seven years after the war ended in 1975.
“You know when U.S. pull out and their lives just upside down. Unbelievable — it’s unspeakable,” she told Defense One. “And Sen. McCain was a prisoner of war over there who knew what’s it’s like to be a prisoner of Communists. You know so he survived that so he know, that’s why he’s so passionate about that and we are forever grateful to him.”
That was a swat at Donald Trump, who belittled McCain’s imprisonment in July — and who has more recently blasted Obama administration plans to allow more Syrian refugees into the country. The debate, which caught fire after the Paris attacks, led New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan to become the first Democratic governor to suggest a “pause” in Syrian immigration might be prudent.
It’s led most of the GOP field to do the same as they’ve campaigned in the Granite State in recent days and filed for its first-in-the-nation primary. Former Gov. Jeb Bush struggled to find the right balance between being “supportive” and pushing “the pause button.” Ben Carson tried to clarify his earlier remarks comparing refugees to rabid dogs. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie invoked 9/11 to defend his stance against admitting Syrian refugee orphans under the age of 5.
Graham, meanwhile, said his presidential rivals were offering tough talk on Syrian refugees instead of national security experience or plans to end the war in Syria. But even Graham and McCain — who himself faces a tough race for reelection back home in Arizona — said they too support a pause, and pledged to vote in the Senate for the anti-refugee bill passed by the House last week.
Over the weekend, Defense One followed Graham and McCain to seven campaign events. At the Manchester temple, McCain stood stiffly, as he has in the decades since he endured years of torture as a prisoner of war. Graham cracked jokes, mostly lost on the mainly Vietnamese-speaking group, saying “mazel tov” as he posed for photos. But he also delivered the core message of his updated stump speech: The Paris attacks prove that American military might is needed to restore world order — and vindicate his long-shot campaign for commander in chief.
Kelley translated for Graham, who told the group, “McCain is your hero; he is mine,” to appreciative awws. “I wish all Americans appreciated freedom as much as our Vietnamese friends. You appreciate it the most when you have lived without it. I hope one day to come to New Hampshire and meet people from the Mideast.”
Kelly wanted clarification: “You mean mideast U.S. or Mideast?” she asked the senators. “Middle East,” McCain said, and Graham quipped, “Not from Iowa.” She translated, and the crowd laughed. “And I hope they will be able to thank us for helping them with their freedom,” Graham said.
The senator from South Carolina has practically made New Hampshire a second home, aiming for an upset here to generate much-needed momentum. This recruitment task will fall largely to community organizers like Candy Phan.
Phan describes her “escape” from Vietnam in 1984, a journey that began with a five-day boat ride and ultimately brought her to New England. Still, she believes the U.S. should limit the number of Syrian refugees it accepts.
“I think we should stop immigrating over because most people come here to take advantage of a free, new life, but some come here to be enemy and try and destroy country so I think we should look over, and we have to limit it,” she said, adding that Syrian refugees are different than the Vietnamese. “They not looking for American lifestyle, they are looking for something to destroy … You cannot say all of them, but some of them in there they have evil behind them.”
Kelley, a registered Republican, said Graham has won her vote, and those of other Vietnamese-Americans.
“His 33 years in the Air Force, he travelled to Afghanistan, to Iraq, and he has very, you know famous thing he said, had he gonna be like president of U.S., whoever is going to join ISIL, he is not going to call a judge, he is going to call a drone to kill you!” she shouts, then laughs.
Chau Kelley and Candy Phan with Sens. Lindsey Graham and John McCain at a Vietnamese temple in New Hampshire on Saturday, Nov. 21.
Kelley says Graham shares her community’s values. “Being a refugee myself I have total compassionate and sympathy for all the refugee for Syria,” she said. “I understand what they went through and my hope for these Syrian refugees is yes, U.S. could right now have a very strict screening to bring only assure people we are so 100 percent sure that can come to this country that is not a threat.…I would not open the gate just to anyone from Syria or just because we promised.”
But she acknowledged that people had also been suspicious of Vietnamese refugees.
“They make it look like you know all this war had no meaning and blah blah blah. It makes anything associated with Vietnam is bad, so anything you hear Vietnam is bad,” she said.
McCain said Vietnamese and Syrian refugees are different.
“There was never any enemy intimation that the North Vietnamese wanted to export any kind of terror or attacks into the United States of America,” he said, riding an SUV back to headquarters after a long Saturday of campaign stops. “That is drastically different from what we are facing in the form of ISIS. There was nobody that was in Hanoi saying, ‘Get on a boat and let us know when you get to the United States.’”
“I am for the refugees,” he said. “I just want to make sure we have the proper procedures to make sure that they are not gonna commit acts of terror because we know that’s what [ISIS leader Abu Bakr al] Baghdadi wants to do.”
Graham pronounced the temple event the “the highlight of my entire campaign for president.”
“See, the people on the Republican side who are demagoguing this ... it’s a cop out,” he said. “They wanna focus exclusively on how tough they are on the refugees, when what we want to be doing is be reasonable balancing our national security against the need to help the refugees. But we want to go to source of the problem, that’s the difference.”
While Kelley said U.S. authorities should be cautious, she said the backlash against Syrians is more based on fears than reality. And any risk, she said, is worth taking to preserve American values.
“They see how Parisian die, so they just don’t want to die and anything associated with threat of being dead, they scared,” she said. “They’re not afraid of Syrian refugees, or Middle East refugee or whatever refugee, they are scared of being dead. You know so they just have that instant reaction: shut it down first, to be safe. Safety first. It’s not the people. It’s … it’s what’s in your mind.”
“If we take these people in and God forbid we have one person do something still … if I have to die so that others can live freely, with just one mistake? I rather die,” she said. “Like Sen. McCain said, and Sen. Graham said, you put other people benefits before yours. And those that serve our country, sacrifice the ultimate price, which is their life, for us to be free here. For this country to be free from that. So why not now continue? Because that is the tradition of this nation. This is a great nation.”
NEXT STORY: Why Obama Is Standing by the Syrian Refugees