(Photo: Reformed Church of Highland Park)
A Christian undocumented immigrant from Indonesia facing deportation has been provided protection from a New Jersey church as his application for asylum remains in limbo and he fears persecution from Muslim extremists in his native homeland.
Saul Timisela, 44, escaped religious persecution at home 14 years ago and was living in the shadow of the law in the Garden State alongside a few dozen of his Christian countrymen in a similar situation, while the church's pastor, the Rev. Seth Kaper-Dale, has been fighting for the government to give the Indonesians a chance to re-apply for their asylum applications on the grounds that they are refugees.
Timisela was supposed to report to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Newark on Wednesday with documentation that, as he was reportedly told, was needed for furthering his Application for a Stay of Deportation or Removal, only to find out that he was to be deported the next day, Kaper-Dale told The Christian Post. Timisela's wife is currently living in hiding, as she never even filed for asylum, the pastor said.
"We just thought that was cruel and unusual and so we offered him sanctuary," Kaper-Dale told The Christian Post Friday.
Instead of showing up at the airport Thursday morning, the immigrant turned up at the Reformed Church of Highland Park in Highland Park, N.J., where he is currently staying under the care of the church community and its leader, who has been fighting tirelessly since 2009 to save the Indonesians from deportation. The undocumented group revealed themselves to the government after 2001, when the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS) initiative called for illegal immigrants from specific countries to register, following 9/11 terrorst attacks.
"We are humbly and respectfully disagreeing with the government," Kaper-Dale said. "We are not trying to be flamboyant in any way. We are people who love government, who trust in laws; who believe that God uses law to bring order to society. We are not anarchists or anything like that. We just really feel that sometimes it's the role of the church to remind the government of a higher law."
The community has done everything in its power to work with the government, the pastor said. The straw that broke the camel's back was officials trying to deport Timisela on a one-day notice, the pastor said.
The officials deny this. Newark ICE spokesman Harold Ort told CP that Timisela was notified of his removal date on Feb. 8. The Indonesian Christian is considered an "immigration fugitive" who "was given the opportunity to surrender himself to ICE March 1, 2012, but he failed to report as required," Ort told CP in an email.
Immigration fugitives -- individuals who ignore the direction of an immigration judge to depart the country -- are an enforcement priority for ICE, he explained.
"The agency's June 17, 2011, prosecutorial discretion memo, specifically notes that an individual's history as an ICE fugitive should be weighed as a negative factor when considering whether or not to exercise prosecutorial discretion," Ort's statement reads.
Meanwhile, Kaper-Dale insists that Timisela was given less than 20 hours to "pick up the life that he has built for the past 14 years."
According to the pastor, he attempted applying for the Application for a Stay of Deportation or Removal (or I-246) -- a loophole that highlighted various humanitarian factors that are part of the June 17 Prosecutorial Discretion Memo -- in January, to save himself from deportation. Yet the bureaucratic difficulties that Timisela faced appeared too tricky. An officer reportedly encouraged him to strengthen the I-246 application with more medical evidence about his health problems.
Timisela was told in January that his deportation date was set for March 1, but since the officer simultaneously requested more documents, the refugee assumed that would only happen if he did not manage to provide the materials, Kaper-Dale told CP in an emailed statement. "Also, a recent update from ICE Headquarters about the various cases we'd inquired about did NOT include Saul as someone slated for deportation," the pastor wrote. Then, on Feb. 29, Timisela reported at the ICE office and was reportedly told he was to be deported the next day.
"We'll continue to allow them to stay here and we'll make ICE have to come in. If they want to, they can of course do that, but there's no precedence for ICE entering church buildings," the pastor told CP, adding that Timisela's wife might try to join him at some point.
The pastor is convinced that if the man is deported to Indonesia, his life will be threatened by Muslim extremists targeting Christians. Indonesia is known for cases of violence against the Christian community, including personal attacks and storming church buildings.
Timisela's brother-in-law, who was pastor at an Indonesian church, was found in 2000 murdered, beheaded and with his arms cut-off, in his church, burnt to the ground, Kaper-Dale claims.
Timisela was not only struggling back at home, but once he came to the United States and overstayed his tourist visa, he still decided to be honest about it and reveal himself, hoping for the system's forgiveness and understanding. Keper-Dale said that the Indonesian man contracted liver disease, heart disease and hypertension stemming from his work of clearing debris from Ground Zero starting in Sept. 2001.
Meanwhile, a bill that Kaper-Dale kick-started with the help of the community and a few Democratic politicians and lobbyists might give this Indonesian community (those who can make a case for religious persecution) a chance to re-apply for asylum.
The bill, titled the Indonesian Family Refugee Protection Act (HR3590), proposed by Representatives Carolyn B. Maloney (D-NY) and Frank Pallone Jr. (D-NJ) remains currently at the Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement. On Feb. 17, the group found a Republican sponsor -- Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey -- necessary for the bill to pass, Kaper-Dale said. The pastor struggled for a long time and was turned down by all Republican politicians he previously approached, he told CP -- including the lawmakers who have spoken publically in favor of supporting religious freedom for Christians abroad.
The pastor is convinced that the partisan gridlock in Washington is not helping to push the bill, seen by many as primarily backing a case for illegal immigrants. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking for other Indonesians are also facing imminent deportation.
Kaper-Dale is also deeply disappointed with the lack of support from the Obama administration.
"There seems to be this refusal by the White House, and the ICE headquarters to ask their local office to hold off the deportation of Indonesians," he told CP.
Timisela is one of 70-odd Indonesian Christians who fled religious persecution around the same time, in the 1990s and early 2000s, during a major crackdown on churches.
Kaper-Dale expressed belief that faith will help these persecuted people prevail.
"We are people who know about looking at crosses," he said. "And about staring at crosses, and picking up crosses even. And we can do that because we have hope that there is something beyond the cross. So we're not afraid and he [Timisela] is not afraid."
If he was afraid, the pastor suggested, he would have either gone into hiding, or he would have gone to that airport and be deported. But instead of hiding, he has allowed himself to "be highlighted."
"I find him very brave and I admire him deeply," the pastor said.
New Jersey immigration officials claim that the Newark office continues to support a program that gives "low-risk aliens" a final chance to re-open their immigration case by extending their permission to stay in the U.S. by six to 12 months. After a meeting with the Rev. Seth in April 2011, ICE extended the stays in these cases after the initial 12-month period, Ort told CP. The official's statement suggests that all possible legal loopholes have, by now, been utilized.