Republican Lawmakers Neglecting Plight of Indonesian Christian Refugees?

New Jersey Pastor Fights for Support of Bill That Would Keep Immigrant Families Together

Partisan tensions on Capitol Hill may be keeping the Rev. Seth Kaper-Dale of Reformed Church of Highland Park, N.J., from finding a Republican co-sponsor for legislation that could prevent Indonesian families in his congregation from being torn apart.

Several members of Kaper-Dales' congregation are facing deportation and possible persecution back home in Indonesia, and the minister tells The Christian Post that a bill sitting in Congress's Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security, and International Law may be their final hope.

With the clock ticking for the immigrants, many of whom came to the U.S. on tourist visas but stayed beyond the predetermined date, Kaper-Dale is trying to gain support for the bill, which would grant the refugees a second chance to submit their asylum applications. But the Indonesian Family Refugee Protection Act – sponsored by Democrats, Representatives Carolyn B. Maloney of New York and Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey – needs the support of at least one Republican in order to stand a chance, Kaper-Dale told CP Monday. And that support has not yet been found.

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The bill is not about immigration per se, the minister claims; it is about human rights, religious freedom and family values.

“We have put in an extensive push on reaching out to Republicans, believing strongly that this is a bill about two things: family values and keeping families together,” the minister, who plays the group's unofficial advocate, told CP. “Family values and religious persecution – in particular persecuted church – seemed to me fundamental things that I would imagine a Republican to stand for.”

None of the politicians he approached agreed to immediate support of the bill, Kaper-Dale said. CP did not manage to reach the politicians mentioned for immediate comment.

“This is a bill about Christian persecution, and yet we can’t get Christian Republicans to join in,” the minister said.

The bill's sponsors argue that it is indeed more than a bill on immigration.

“The United States has long sought to protect refugees fleeing persecution and provide a fair process to consider their claims. Our legislation simply allows Indonesian Christians who fled their homes to have chance to seek asylum,” Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney (D-Manhattan, Queens) said in an email statement to CP. “This bill does not, in itself, grant asylum, but merely removes a procedural barrier to the fair consideration of their claims. These individuals deserve a second chance to avoid the intolerance and dangers they have fled and remain united with their families.”

When, in 2003, the U.S. government denied asylum to 70-odd New Jersey-based Indonesian Christians who entered the country illegally to escape persecution in late 1990s, the minister stood up in their defense against deportation. The fight with the system continued for eight years.

The fight began with the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS) initiative that called for illegal immigrants from specific countries to register or be considered terrorist fugitives, as part of the post-9/11 crackdown on aliens from majorly Muslim countries. The New Jersey community of Christians who, born and raised in Indonesia, escaped their homeland in the 1990s and remained in the shadow of the U.S. immigration system while raising their families and leading low-profile lives, decided to come clean, as they were persecuted at home by the very group the U.S. government was after – Muslim extremists. But their asylum applications were denied, due to the expired one-year deadline for those requesting asylum status.

Since then, between 80 and 90 fathers from the community were deported to the country where they potentially face persecution from both Muslim militia and the government; while the remaining refugees face imminent deportation, having only been able to stay in the country thanks to a makeshift arrangement Kaper-Dale and some supporters managed to negotiate for them from authorities. But even that grace period nears its end, as the refugees have received letters from immigration services calling them to report to federal offices with one-way tickets to Indonesia.

Pastor Kaper-Dale told CP that experts who have advised him suggested that no immigration bill would go through Washington under this administration, because of the partisan gridlock that paralyzes the legislative process on Capitol Hill.

But not all observers agree with that theory.

“In my opinion, the reason the sponsors for H.R 3590 are having a hard time finding a Republican co-sponsor is because Republicans have been preoccupied with urgent domestic legislation. I highly doubt Republican lawmakers won’t co-sponsor the bill purely out of an unwillingness to work with their Democrat counterparts,” Ryan Morgan, Regional Manager for Southeast Asia at the International Christian Concern (ICC) a Christian advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., told CP Wednesday. ICC specializes in advocating for the cases of persecuted Christians in countries where believers are a minority.

The vast majority of legislation promoting religious freedom and designed to protect people from religious persecution is written and sponsored by Republicans, Morgan added.

Kaper-Dale made it clear he believes certain politicians are anxious about supporting a legislation that seemingly supports unlawful immigration.

“I think there is the fear of precedent-setting, once they acknowledge that the whole immigration system is broken,” he told CP.

But the minister has also made it clear that he does not intend to give up.

“As a local pastor who is concerned about real families with real names, to me, that’s an unacceptable answer,” he said. “These folks that are making decisions in Washington obviously can’t take it from the same personal place, but at some point we wish that they would believe us – brothers and sisters in Christ arguing for basic human rights for folks who were persecuted. Who came feeling like it was God’s gift that they got away.”

The undocumented Indonesian immigrants escaped violent persecution by the Muslim militia that  raged in their country in the late 1990s. Most of their children were born on U.S. soil.

Central New Jersey had no Indonesian churches in 1995, and seven by 2000, with some 1,000 members, Kaper-Dale told CP.

Unless the bill passes, U.S. authorities will be responsible for separating dozens of families, probably forever, the pastor explained. Moreover, once the refugees are sent back to Indonesia, they face possible persecution.

Morgan, however, told CP that the safety of the potential repatriates depends on the region of the country to which they return.

“There are certainly still cases of Christian persecution occurring in Indonesia, but in my opinion they would not be in imminent danger unless they moved to an area with very little tolerance for Christianity,” he said, noting that persecution could also come from a specific group.

Still, according to reports from Compass Direct News, acts of violence and intolerance against Christians in Indonesia almost doubled in 2011, with Islamist groups reportedly launching a campaign to close down churches. The Indonesian Protestant Church Union, locally known as PGI, counted 54 acts of violence and other violations against Christians in 2011, up from 30 in 2010.

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