New York and New Jersey lawmakers introduced a bill in Congress last week that would help a group of Indonesians remain legally in New Jersey, where they have lived under a conditional agreement with the federal government for years. About seventy Indonesian immigrants recently received deportation letters from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), according to the Wall Street Journal. The ICE letters either warn the immigrants of the agency’s intent to deport them, or they explicitly instruct them to come to the nearest ICE office with a one-way ticket to Indonesia. The immigrants have lived in a sort of legal gray area for years, lacking official immigrant status. The proposed legislation, the Indonesian Family Refugee Protection Act, would allow Indonesians meeting certain criteria to reapply for asylum, which could give them a chance at full legal permanent residence.
Most of the affected individuals are Christians who came to the United States in the late 1990’s. They were fleeing from instability and religious persecution in Indonesia, which has the world’s largest Muslim population and a history of political and economic upheavals. They mostly came on tourist visas and were able to get work authorization and Social Security numbers. They largely settled in New Jersey, but communities also formed in New York and New Hampshire.
These Indonesian immigrants have truly settled in the United States. They have jobs, they pay taxes, and they have U.S.-born, and therefore U.S. citizen, children. Many applied for asylum, but the applications were denied as untimely. In 2003, federal authorities implemented a program in response to the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, that required adult males from fifteen countries with large Muslim populations to register with the government. The immigrants complied with this requirement. Then, in 2006, ICE began deporting Indonesians.
A minister in Highland Park, Rev. Seth Kaper-Dale, intervened on behalf of a group who sought refuge in his church. Immigration authorities agreed to allow “conditional supervision” of the Indonesians. This allowed them to continue living and working in the United States while they “tried to sort out their paperwork.” This is the legal gray area under which they have lived for years.
The deportation letters started coming several months after the Obama administration announced a new policy of “prosecutorial discretion,” under which it will focus its efforts on deporting individuals with criminal convictions and those who pose a clear threat to national security. It is not clear what prompted ICE to send the letters out now, but the Indonesians affected by the letters do not appear to fit the profile covered by the White House’s new policy. They now face the prospect of leaving the homes they’ve know for over a decade and their U.S. citizen children.