Some 70-odd members of a community of Christian Indonesian refugees who fled their country due to religious persecution 10 years ago and have been living in Highland Park, N.J., are facing imminent deportation.
The undocumented Indonesian immigrants escaped persecution in the late 1990s. Central New Jersey had no Indonesian churches in 1995, and seven by 2000, with some 1,000 members, according to a local pastor. Most of their children were born on American soil. These refugees have been living in the peaceful New Jersey community, in the shadows of the immigration law, attending church, including the Reformed Church of Highland Park.
But things have changed for the community after Sept. 11, 2001, when the federal agencies cracked down on immigrants from Muslim countries. One policy enacted was the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS) initiative that called for illegal immigrants from specific countries to register or be considered terrorist fugitives. All the men in the community decided “after much prayer” to be honest and reveal themselves, given that they were Christians who escaped Muslim persecution, the Rev. Seth Kaper-Dale, pastor of the Reformed Church of 10 years, told The Christian Post Friday.
But the U.S. government did not appreciate the men’s honesty. They were denied asylum. By early 2006, every male and some women of the community had been given a final deportation order (some women decided to “come out” together with their spouses).
In May 2006, 25 fathers wer deported in one night. Some of them were members of Kaper-Dale’s church (he wrote an article about it at the time). In the following weeks, many of the Indonesians (most of them women and children) were living at the church, afraid to go back to their apartments.
Through 2007 and 2008, members of the community continued disappearing -- from work, from home, and when they were dropping their children off at school, the pastor said.
When the time came for Harry Pangenanan, minister’s best friend and church elder, to be detained for deportation, Kaper-Dale, seeing the agony of Pangenanan’s wife and children, was moved to the point of going to Washington, D.C., to lobby for his friend’s release. With the help of media attention and some understanding social servants, Pangenanan was released and returned to his family in New Jersey.
“If you push hard enough for an individual, you can get what you want,” Kaper-Dale told CP. “But the system is so broken."
In September, the church held a vigil in which children read letters publicly that they had written to their deported fathers. The next morning, two other men were picked up by immigration authorities, while dropping their children off at kindergarten, the pastor said.
The local Christian community took to fighting for the undocumented men’s rights.
Finally, two years ago, the group was granted special status from immigration authorities, which allowed them to remain in the United States temporarily, with the opportunity to work. However, the terms of the agreement included the possibility that their special status could expire at any time.
“Despite all our high hopes about President Obama, nothing has turned out well in terms of immigration,” Kaper-Dale said. “In fact, he’s been a nightmare for immigrants. [There were] three times more people sent away during Obama’s first three years than during the entire Bush administration.”
The end of the exceptional deal for the community came this year.
In recent weeks, most of the refugees have received letters from the Department of Homeland Security ordering them to appear at the agency’s Newark office with a one-way ticket to Indonesia. The refugees appeared at the office but without tickets, as, in Kaper-Dale’s words, they did not want to contribute to “their own demise.” Meanwhile, they are at home, but can be detained and deported any day.
“The most troubling thing about this for me is the breaking up of families,” the pastor said.
But help might be on the way, as two politicians, Representatives Carolyn B. Maloney of New York and Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey, both Democrats, submitted a bill this week that would allow people who arrived in the United States because of persecution to resubmit asylum claims outside of the one-year filing deadline (which the Indonesian community missed). The New Jersey community is still looking for a Republican that would support the bill.
“We don’t know what IS [U.S. Immigration Services] will do, but we are determined to fight [for] it to the end and to cry out for justice until it happens” Kaper-Dale told CP.
Before the members of the Indonesian community came to the United States, they were experiencing continuous persecution from jihadist Muslims at home, the pastor told CP. They lived under constant threat of an assault. Some had found an "X" marked on the doors of their churches, which indicated that the buildings would eventually be bombed, burned or otherwise destroyed.
Many observers fear that if these Indonesian men are sent back to their country, they might find themselves in danger again.
Thursday the Indonesian Ambassador to the United States Dino Patti Djalal said that the people who fled persecution in their homeland do not deserve to be granted asylum.
“We know that Indonesia is a country that supports freedom of religion. People of every religion: Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism and Buddhism have their rights guaranteed by the constitution. Saying that you feel threatened because of a lack of religious freedom is exaggerating,” he said Thursday in Washington DC, reported The Jakarta Post.