ANAHEIM, Ca.—Politicians like Donald Trump have talked a lot about refugees this election cycle. But it’s a lot rarer to see politicians to ask refugees for their votes, like Bao Nguyen, a local mayor running for a Southern California Congressional seat, did last week.
“Salaam alaikum,” said Nguyen—tall and skinny with slicked back hair—as he ambled into an English class for Iraqi and Syrian refugees at a local nonprofit. “I want to be a voice for refugees in Congress,” he told the group of 13 men and women as the teacher translated what he said into Arabic. If he seemed comfortable in the setting, flashing a bright smile, it was because it was familiar to him: “My parents went to an ESL class just like this,” he said. “I hope your son or your daughter will one day become not just mayor but president of the United States.”
Nguyen, 36, is hoping to become the first member of Congress born in a refugee camp. But he also defies more stereotypes of a typical politician: he’s a Vietnamese refugee who speaks fluent Spanish and an openly gay mayor who has endorsed Bernie Sanders.
He is running in an election cycle that has featured the most virulent anti-refugee rhetoric in decades. Trump has vowed to close America’s doors to Syrian refugees, calling them “Trojan Horses” and falsely arguing that “we have no idea who these people are, where they come from.” (Refugees face stricter security screenings and background checks than any other foreigners allowed into the U.S.)
To Nguyen, the issue is personal. “Refugees really are the foundation of this country—those who sought religious freedoms, those who sought freedom from oppressive governments,” he told me. “It’s terrible that as a country we can’t remember where we came from.”
The U.S. was a safe haven for Nguyen’s family. His father worked for an American nonprofit during the Vietnam War, so the new Vietnamese government put him under house arrest and repeatedly interrogated him, according to Nguyen. The family decided to leave while his mother was still pregnant with him, crowding on a shaky boat with other families and making their way to Thailand. Once they reached shore, completely out of food, locals with weapons tried to prevent them from landing. A group of Buddhist monks at a nearby temple formed a human chain to protect the refugees as they came ashore.
The family lived in a Doctors Without Borders refugee camp, where Nguyen was born. His birth certificate—in case Trump wants to see it—is handwritten. “I had no citizenship to any country whatsoever,” he said.
Three months after he was born, his family got on a Pan Am flight to Nashville, where they were resettled. Some of his earliest memories are tagging along to his parents’ own ESL classes and eating snacks in the back of the classroom.
“When I see those kids that we see, those images out of Syria, that could have been me. That could have been my brother or my sister.”- Bao Nguyen
Adjusting to American living was especially tough for his parents, who struggled to learn English. Even as his father tried to adapt to a new life in the U.S., he suffered PTSD from his interrogations in Vietnam. During their first Fourth of July, his mother thought fireworks were bombings, and hid Nguyen and his siblings under their bed. “Being an immigrant in America is a pretty traumatic experience,” Nguyen said.
When Nguyen was five, the family took a greyhound bus to Anaheim, and he’s lived in the area ever since. As a kid in conservative Orange County, he remembers a teacher once pointing a finger in his face and telling him to “speak English” when he was talking in Spanish with some friends. And classmates sometimes called him a “gook,” a derogatory term for Southeast Asian people.
“Growing up gay and immigrant in a family with parents that didn’t speak English, being made fun of at school and always feeling kind of different—I think that’s an asset for me,” he said. “I may not be able to fit in anywhere, but I’m able to see how we relate to one another and I’m able to draw the connections.”
Nguyen became a naturalized citizen at age 12, and was asked by an immigration officer if he wanted an “American name,” like some other Vietnamese immigrants. “My name is American,” he replied.
One of Nguyen’s first political experiences was as a student at UC Irvine, when he and other Vietnamese-American kids protested John McCain’s use of the word “gook” during the 2000 presidential campaign. After graduating, Nguyen taught as a substitute teacher in Orange County public schools before getting a job as a community organizer—a profession he first heard about when Sarah Palin made fun of Barack Obama’s job title in 2008. He worked with Latino churches in the area, learning to speak Spanish fluently, registering voters, and winning funding for seniors.
As a school board member, he helped create dual immersion language programs in both Spanish-English and Vietnamese-English. In 2014, he was elected mayor of Garden Grove, defeating a 22–year incumbent by 15 votes. He became the first Vietnamese-American mayor of a large American city and the first openly gay mayor in Orange County.
Now that the globe is facing the worst refugee crisis in recorded history—with more than 65 million people displaced—Nguyen has been thinking more about his own past. “Seeing the Syrian refugees have to flee their homeland definitely reminds me of my parents’ experiences,” he said. “When I see those kids that we see, those images out of Syria, that could have been me. That could have been my brother or my sister.”
Like Syrian refugees today, Vietnamese refugees after the war were also treated with suspicion in the U.S., called communists even though they had fled the communist government, or accused of stealing jobs. “Vietnamese folks were once thought of as potential enemies,” Nguyen said, just as Trump and others are stirring fear about Syrian and Muslim refugees. “It’s very disturbing.”
With just under two weeks to go until election day, Nguyen is definitely the underdog in his race. He’s running against fellow Democrat Lou Correa, a former state senator who is backed by most of the party establishment, including the seat’s current representative, Loretta Sanchez, who is running for U.S. Senate.
Correa is seen as a moderate who as a senator opposed expanding the definition of banned assault weapons, voted against new corporate taxes, and supported requiring parental notification for minors who get abortions. Nguyen is a liberal and a passionate Bernie Sanders supporter. He was one of the first elected officials in the country to endorse the Vermont senator. On the other hand, Correa has criticized Nguyen for renewing the contract for a private prison company to run his city’s jail.
In the eight-candidate nonpartisan primary in June, Correa won 44% of the vote, while Nguyen got 15%. And Correa has raised $811,000, compared to Nguyen’s $262,000, according to Federal Election Commission records. Nguyen acknowledged that he faces a “big gap,” but he said his campaign is working hard to get his message out and mobilize young people.
Some of Nguyen’s liberal positions have proved unpopular among the older, more conservative members of the Vietnamese community. Most Vietnamese-American politicians elected around here have been Republicans. One 70-year-old Vietnamese voter told the Los Angeles Times last month that he didn’t like Nguyen’s “lifestyle”—that “for my generation, things like your… sexual orientation, transgender issues… that still bothers us.”
The district is very diverse, with large Latino and Vietnamese populations. It’s includes part of Little Saigon, which locals say is the largest enclave of Vietnamese people outside of Vietnam; refugee-owned business and pho restaurants in strip malls abound. Around here, Nguyen’s huge, hot pink campaign signs stand out on the avenues. The district is also home to Disneyland, where Nguyen worked as a teenager selling T-shirts.
He isn’t the only refugee running for Congress this year. Stephanie Murphy, a Democrat campaigning in a district north of Orlando, was a baby when her family also fled Vietnam by boat. They were rescued at sea by the U.S. Navy and eventually resettled in Virginia.
“Being an immigrant in America is a pretty traumatic experience.”- Bao Nguyen
Nguyen hopes to see more refugees run for public office and find a larger public voice. Too often, he said, politicians talk about refugees and fan the flames of fear instead of actually listening to them. “I want to make sure that the conversation we have in America about refugees and about immigrants isn’t just them being talked about, but that we hear from refugees and immigrants themselves,” he said.
“That’s what America is—we’re the safe haven,” he added. “That’s what makes America great.”