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SOMERSWORTH, N.H. (AP) — Since he became governor, Chris Sununu has rarely clashed with President Donald Trump, supporting the travel ban on citizens from several mostly Muslim nations and quick to play up visits he has made the White House.
But when Trump's immigration crackdown reached the state's tiny Indonesian community this year, Sununu wrote a letter to his fellow Republican in October in which he said he was "respectfully requesting your administration reconsider its decision to deport these individuals" and urging it consider a "resolution that would allow them to remain in the United States."
Sununu insisted the case of the Indonesians was different from that of visitors from the Middle East or Syrian refugees hoping to settle in New Hampshire. The Indonesians had been in the state for decades, raising families, working and staying out of trouble, he argues.
"This really isn't an issue of illegal immigration in the traditional sense. That is often what we hear from the Trump administration, and that is an issue that has to be dealt on the national scale," Sununu told The Associated Press in an interview. "What you have here is a unique situation."
Sununu has been praised by Democrats in New Hampshire who have championed the Indonesians' case while Republicans, and even anti-immigrant Trump supporters, have said little about the decision.
Political experts said there are risks for Sununu in embracing the Indonesians ahead of a re-election bid next year. But in a swing state with a Democratic congressional delegation, the move shouldn't hurt him and shows that he "is independent to make up his own mind based on the facts," said Wayne Lesperance, a political science professor at New England College.
"You could argue this represents a little bit of a risk with the base," Lesperance said. "But the flip side of that ... is that most people in New Hampshire, if they reviewed this specific case, would come to the same conclusion that the governor did."
The nearly 70 Indonesians in New Hampshire and Massachusetts are mostly Christians and fled religious persecution before and after the fall of former dictator Suharto in 1998. In the chaos that followed, riots broke out and mobs targeted ethnic Chinese and other minorities in the mostly Muslim country.
Many of the Indonesians came to seacoast communities in New Hampshire, where they found jobs and raised families. In a 2009 deal brokered by Democratic U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, they were allowed to stay as long as they regularly reported to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The agreement was separate from the special refugee program known as temporary protected status and only applied to those living in New Hampshire.
But in past six months, as part of a wider crackdown on immigration since Trump took office, they have been told they had to prepare to leave the country.
Some said they feared returning at a time of growing intolerance and violence against Christians, noting that the Christian governor of Jakarta was imprisoned for blasphemy this year.
Freddy and Poppy Sombah, who fled Indonesia 14 years ago with one of their three children, said that they had endured harassment from their mostly Muslim neighbors, and that Poppy Sombah's family disowned her after she converted to Christianity from Islam.
The couple, both now in their 60s, settled into an apartment complex with other Indonesian families in Somersworth and found factory jobs.
But in July on a routine immigration check-in, they were told they would have to leave the country and show proof they had bought a plane ticket to Indonesia on their next visit. They were due to leave in September.
"We were in shock," said Poppy Sombah, sitting next to her husband in an apartment filled with family photos and a portrait of Jesus. "I was very sad, but there was nothing we could do."
Their case and others drew the attention of both Democrats and Republicans.
Lawyers for the Indonesians referenced the support of Sununu, as well as members of the state's Democratic congressional delegation, when they persuaded a judge to rule in November that a federal court has the authority to take up their case, allowing the Indonesians to stay — for now.
"It's wonderful, and we are thankful," Poppy Sombah said. "We didn't expect that to happen, that the governor himself would support us. He's a Republican."
New Jersey also has a small Indonesian community at risk, but Republican Gov. Chris Christie has not commented.
In Connecticut, a former Fulbright scholar from Indonesia took sanctuary inside a church in October after he was ordered by ICE to board a plane. Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy did not return messages.
Supporting the Indonesians was an easy decision, Sununu said, and had nothing to do with politics or religion.
"This is simply a humanitarian issue," said Sununu, who met with several Indonesians facing deportation at his office. "It's my job as governor to stand up and fight for constituents when there is a wrong."
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