HIGHLAND PARK, NJ - Police are investigating the vandalism and ransacking of two homes of Indonesian immigrants seeking sanctuary in the Reformed Church of Highland Park, Rev. Seth Kaper-Dale confirmed Saturday.
Harry Pangemanan, who’s been using the church as a sanctuary since Thursday, said that he and his family found out Friday evening that their house was ransacked.
Arthur Jemmy, who’s been using the church as a sanctuary since October 2017, also discovered Saturday morning that his Edison apartment had been vandalized.
“Two of the families in sanctuary have had their homes broken into and ransacked while they have been in sanctuary,” Kaper-Dale said in a Facebook post-Saturday morning.
Kaper-Dale, an immigrant-rights activist, has been offering the church as sanctuary for three Indonesians with deportation orders from federal immigration officials.
Jemmy, Pangemanan and the third man, Yohanes Tasik of the Avenel section of Woodbridge, say they fear deportation back to Indonesia, the Muslim-majority country from which they fled due to religious persecution.
Pangemanan was recently honored by Highland Park, where he lives, with the 2018 MLK Humanitarian Award for organizing 3,000 volunteers to rebuild more than 200 homes ravaged in the wake of Superstorm Sandy in 2012.
He came to the church in the morning of Thursday, Jan. 25, after federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials tried to nab him as he was pulling out of his driveway to bring his daughter to school.
Federal ICE agents outside Harry Pangemanan's home on Jan. 25. Credit: Rev. Seth Kaper-Dale
Pangemanan was rushed to the church by Kaper-Dale. In the hours that followed, Congressman Frank Pallone (D- 7th Dist.), Gov. Phil Murphy, the mayors of Highland Park and Metuchen, and dozens of community activists, all came to his support.
On Friday evening, Pangemanan’s two daughters said they wanted to briefly go back to the house to shower and gather some personal belongings, according to Kaper-Dale.
They found the front door broken open with a crowbar, their parents' bedroom turned upside down and a few items of value stolen.
“We assumed it was a burglary, may be prompted by the news coverage, but we weren’t ready to jump to any conclusion,” Kaper-Dale said.
But the next day, the church learned that Jemmy’s apartment had also been vandalized.
“I am writing now to tell you that Arthur and Silfia’s house, in another town, also was trashed,” Kaper-Dale wrote Saturday morning.
“It wasn’t like they had stolen the TV and this and that,” Kaper-Dale added. “It felt like some items were stolen, but this wasn’t ‘let’s gut a house’, it was ‘let’s create some kind of chaos’.”
Kaper-Dale said he suspected the two incidents were connected and done to “frighten and scare” the two families.
The reverend also entertained the notion that ICE officials might be responsible, and that they conducted a warrantless raid to intimidate the church and three families.
“We hope that ICE would have a good sense to have a warrant before they knocked somebody’s door down and go in through the air conditioner unit,” Kaper-Dale said, referring to the current political climate as a “Gestapo state.”
Kaper-Dale added: “We sure hope that we’re not living in that kind of world where just, some special forces who think they’re all that and they can just bash their way into people’s homes.”
But a spokesperson for ICE said the reverend's claims were “patently false.”
“To suggest that they would cause intentional harm to property is irresponsible and spreads undue fear in the community which this individual claims to support,” said Jennifer D. Elzea, a press secretary for ICE.
On Saturday afternoon Jemmy and Pangemanan, while speaking to reporters, were both visibly upset.
“I just want to make the note that they did damage to American lives, my children’s,” Pangemanan said, holding back tears. “My children’s lives they started destroying.”
Harry Pangemanan in the church galley on Saturday, Jan. 27. Credit: Daniel J. Munoz
While on Thursday, ICE officials were unsuccessful in detaining Pangemanan, they still managed to take two other Middlesex County men, both as they were dropping their children off at school.
Gunawan Liem of Franklin Park and Roby Sanger of Metuchen are currently sitting in the Essex County Jail.
The day after, on Friday, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal wrote a letter to Kirstjen Nielsen, US Secretary of Homeland Security, urging ICE to reconsider their tactic of going after undocumented immigrants at “sensitive locations” such as schools, courthouses and places of worship.
Kaper-Dale said he and other church officials have been calling for Grewal to look at the two vandalism incidents as possible hate crimes.
TAPinto New Brunswick is partnering with ProPublica to track hate crimes in the region. The partnership is part of a nationwide project to track and report bias incidents across the country.
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