Indonesian Fugitives or Indonesian Refugees?

President Obama, Not Too Long Ago Your Administration Changed Their Names

This feature was originally written May 3, 2012.

I am pastor of a church that made a major decision, 55 days ago now, to offer SANCTUARY to an Indonesian Christian named Saul Timisela. We are a church that deeply respects government and we try endlessly to work with government to participate in a world where the "last become first" and where the poor and disenfranchised are lifted up. It is with sadness, then, that we feel the only way for "God's will to be done on earth as it is in heaven" is to respectfully disagree with Immigration Customs and Enforcement and to offer Saul the safety of our church. We feel his basic human rights as a refugee are at stake.

Saul left Indonesia in 1998, just before the ethnic and religious violence in that

country reached its peak, but not before his pastor-brother-in-law was dismembered in his own church building, moments before a mob burned the church to the ground. 8 weeks ago, with little notice, our government was going to send him back to the country from which he escaped. ICE Spokesman Harold Ort was quoted as saying, "Mr. Timisela has been an immigration fugitive since 2006." One one level that is a true statement. Saul and other Indonesian "fugitives" failed in immigration court due to a time bar, with their BIA appeals ending in 2006, and their fear of persecution led them to hide, rather than get on a plane.

However, ICE gave Mr. Timisela, and nearly 200 others who were "fugitives since 2006" a different name by ICE in 2009-10, when ICE worked with my little church and its partners and offered Orders of Supervision to these individuals, recognizing that they were firstly refugees. With ICE's compassionate approach Indonesians in hiding came forward and announced themselves.

Mr. Ort's public statements about Saul Timisela sum up the problem. ICE has gone with the compassion-less description for Indonesians who came here in the late 90's, rather than with the compassionate definition that made church-people proud of ICE in 2009. Why is the President of the United States allowing his federal agency to send persecuted people back to the place from which they escaped?

The back story is important. After September 11th, 2001, the federal government created NSEERS (actually created in Nov, 2002), a national registration program designed to "root out terrorism" from within the U.S. It targeted males in this country who were from 20+ Muslim nations. Indonesia, being the largest Muslim nation, was one of the targets. It was then that I and other pastors learned that our Indonesian congregations were made up of largely undocumented people. It was then that we began hearing details about the atrocities in Indonesia in the late 90's. We encouraged Indonesian men to report for NSEERS, so that they wouldn't be considered terrorist fugitives. We asked them to comply with the government. We hoped they could tell their own story of religious & ethnic persecution and could "begin the path to citizenship" as the memos from that time period read.

The only legal option for these people was asylum…and almost everyone here had a story of personal abuse or extraordinary suffering that we thought would give them a fighting chance for status adjustment. However, the words, "you have been denied because of the 1 year time bar for filing for asylum" were the first words on every denial.

Because they came forward for NSEERS they have suffered. After watching the Indonesian community experience devastating deportations from 2006-2009 we advocated for an opportunity to share the Indonesian story with the Newark Field Office. This opportunity came about with encouragement from President Obama's newly appointed staff in the Washington Headquarters. To our amazement, the Newark Field Office, and later the Boston Field Office and NY Field Office, all listened compassionately and gave Indonesians a chance to come forward and receive Orders of Supervision. They informed us that this arrangement would not hold forever unless there was some change in policy or law.

Now there is a policy in place that could help these Indonesians (the June 17th memo on Prosecutorial Discretion), and a bi-partisan Indonesia-specific bill before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration (HR 3590). Yet, the local field offices that encouraged Americans like us to bring forward Indonesian victims for Orders of Supervision don't seem interested in supporting those individuals anymore-or in supporting the Americans who trusted the good will of the ICE deal makers.

Even more disappointing than the change in the attitude at the local office is the fact that the Obama Administration seems to have little desire to urge its local offices to extend Stays of Removal to a refugee people it supported just two years ago. In fact, they seem to have decided, now, that this community is a deportation priority. Why were people who were "good enough" for Orders of Supervision in 2009 now not good enough for Prosecutorial Discretion in 2012?

We hope and pray that the Obama Administration can regain its compassionate approach of 2009. We hope too that ICE can remember that not too long ago it was willing to change the way it talked about Saul Timisela-calling him a refugee, rather than a fugitive.

Saul was the first, but already we've extended sanctuary to four others-Rovani Wangko, Oldy Manopo, Silfia Tobing and Arthur Jemmy. It is likely that others will seek the protection of the church. We hope and pray that we might resolve this with our government-that our nation, and not just a single church building in New Jersey, might become a sanctuary for these friends who seek freedom from persecution.