Our American dream, our American nightmare
When the Reverend Seth Kaper-Dale took over the running of the Reformed Church of Highland Park, in New Brunswick, New Jersey, he didn’t realise that most of his Indonesian Christian congregation was living illegally in the United States.
Now, after almost a decade of battles, a deadline is pressing hard on 73 members of his church, who are being told to go back to Indonesia.
This may seem like an old story; and one that is happening far from Australia. And it is, on both counts. But these Indonesians, living in fear in New Jersey, still somehow seem to me like Australia’s neighbours.
Sitting with Seth in his church are Harry Tuwo and his wife, Rita Pauned, from Manado, on the northern part of Sulawesi. They don’t have much time to talk. They’ve got to go. They are under orders to report to the local office of Immigration and Custom Enforcement, with one-way air tickets, so they can be shipped home.
The couple’s story of how they came to arrive in America is not a straightforward, emblematic asylum case. Harry, 41, came to the US on a tourist visa in 1995. He got a social security number, a driver’s licence and a job. He knowingly overstayed his visa. He just wanted to live in America.
Rita, 37, arrived in 1999, during the period of church-burning and religious persecution that hit north Sulawesi’s Christians hard. She too came on a tourist visa, but it was the best way to get out of Indonesia fast. Her story is that she was on a boat travelling to Jakarta when most of the Christian passengers were massacred.
She, too, overstayed. They met and married.
Back then, the US had sympathy for Indonesian Christians and Chinese-Indonesians, whom the mob always seemed to turn on first. America took the view that under Suharto, all Indonesians were persecuted. Tourist visas were easy to obtain.
Then came September 11, 2001. Everything changed. America wanted to know whom it had let in and who had overstayed.
In 2002, US Attorney General John Ashcroft announced the National Security Entry Exit Registration System - NSEERS. The program, only recently disbanded, required Muslim non-citizen men aged between 18 and 65 to register with the Department of Homeland Security and be fingerprinted, photographed and interviewed.
If those on overstayed visas did not report, they would be classified as terrorist-fugitives.
The Reverend Seth’s congregation, including Harry and Rita, understandably took the threat very seriously. They – like other Indonesian Church congregations around the US – consulted their pastors. They didn’t want to be branded terrorists and possibly end up in Guantanamo Bay.
The catch was that those who hadn’t already applied for asylum before the NSEERS came into force in early 2003 would never be permitted to do so.
“I, along with other pastors in the area, took the view that honesty would be better than a life of hiding,” says the reverend, who now wonders if he gave the right advice.
“I feel we pulled people into the path of destruction, by being honest, and have caused a lot of pain.”
The men all duly registered with NSEERS and lived openly, as registered non-citizens. For several years, nothing happened. Then, in 2006, agents staged a raid on a New Jersey apartment complex where many Indonesians were living.
That night, 35 men were detained. They were sent back to Indonesia.
Others who had registered with NSEERS began living in fear. The wives of the men who had been sent home changed address, or changed their names. Many of them now had young children born in the US, who were US citizens. Some mothers kept their children away from school so as not to attract attention.
None of the Indonesians wanted to go home. They had started new lives. And for those who left at the height of the most intense anti-Christian, anti-Chinese tensions, they remain unconvinced to this day that Indonesia is safe.
There was a constant trickle of deportees after 2006. Then, in 2009, a key member of Seth’s church, Harry Pangemanan, 41, who had come to the US in 1993 and overstayed his tourist visa, was detained and prepared by ICE for deportation.
Seth began a political campaign and had Harry Pangemanan released from custody, just as he was about to be put on a flight.
President Barack Obama had come to power by then and was talking up a new policy on immigration, which would see people who had lived here illegally, and had started families, paid tax and had no criminal history, be permitted to stay if they passed good character checks.
The policy would apply to all, but was mainly designed to bring the millions of Mexican illegal workers into the fold as taxpayers and citizens – and to stop bosses paying these powerless people sub-minimum wages.
The Indonesians benefitted from this vague presidential edict and were put under general supervision orders and told their cases would be reviewed in two years. But now that time has arrived, they are once again they are being told to leave.
This week, an initial group of 13 New Jersey Indonesians reported to their local ICE office after their church staged an all-night vigil.
When they turned up at the ICE offices, none took their passports or one—way plane tickets, as ordered – but they did have volunteer lawyers. None of them were arrested, but all were told to report again in coming weeks.
Others members of Seth’s church have been fronting up at the ICE office throughout the week.
Seth holds out hope for his Indonesian congregation three reasons. The first is that God will answer their prayers.
The second is that the Obama administration sent out a memo on June 17, this year, asking ICE agencies to exercise prosecutorial discretion on cases where people have established families and no criminal history. He says all members of his Indonesian congregation meet that criteria and he can only think that the local New Jersey ICE office hasn’t yet seen the memo.
The third reason is that a bill went before Congress this week. It is called the Indonesian Families Refugee Protection Act, and seeks to allow all the estimated 2000 people who arrived between 1997 and 2002, during the Indonesian turmoil, to file for asylum.
This would not help the two men named Harry, who are mentioned in this story. Both arrived before 1997. And it may not help any of them.
The proposed bill would not be passed until after the next year’s election, if at all. The Indonesians’ only hope is that news of this Democrat-sponsored bill sends a message to ICE officers to put their cases on hold, again. But that is wishful thinking.
If there is no immediate political or divine intervention, the Indonesians expect they will be deported, within weeks or early next year.
Husbands and wives say if that happens, they will leave their US-born children behind, to be raised here by friends or relatives.
Rita and Harry Tuwo have two American-born children, the youngest being Georgia, a two-year-old with Down Syndrome.
“Here, she’s got therapy,” says Rita, who made inquiries whether there were similar services available at her home in Indonesia. “(There, there) are none. I don’t want to see my baby die over there. Honestly, it’s better she stay here and someone else take her. She’s going to have a problem over there.”
By late Thursday, US time, things had turned ominous, the group got a message from a prominent Indonesian Christian in the US who said he had received advice from the Indonesian consulate in the US warning that those who tried to stay and were deported to Indonesia could face five years in prison upon arrival.
The threat is uncorroborated at this time.
Paul Toohey’s American Story column runs every Saturday on the News Limited iPad apps.
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