HIGHLAND PARK, NJ - Like many Christians living in Indonesia, Harry Pangemanan faced threats
against his own life in the Muslim-majority country.
In the 1990s, he fled to the United States for political asylum, and settled in Highland Park in 2000, where he has since lived.
Just last week, Pangemann was given Highland Park’s 2018 MLK Humanitarian Award for organizing 3,000 volunteers to rebuild more than 200 homes damaged in the wake of Superstorm Sandy.
Less than two weeks later, he’s one of three Christian-Indonesians using the Reformed Church of Highland Park as a sanctuary, fearing a potential deportation back to his home country.
Shortly before 8 a.m. on Thursday, Jan. 25, as Pangemanan was about to drive his oldest daughter, age 15, to school, he saw federal immigration officials staked out in an unmarked car in front of his house.
Harry Pangemanan at an emergency immigrant's advocacy meeting, noon on Thursday, Jan. 25, Credit: Daniel J. Munoz
As he pulled his car out of the driveway, the parked car began to slowly creep forward towards him, so Pangemanan pulled back into the driveway and rushed back inside.
“He had his eyes open because of all this stuff,” said the Rev. Seth Kaper-Dale, who heads the Reformed Church of Highland Park, where Pangemanan is employed as a minister.
Kaper-Dale said he got a call from Pangemanan and immediately rushed over.
“I went to check on him, I went to his house, I saw the car, I went up to the car and the guy drove away,” said Kaper-Dale, who ran an unsuccessful campaign for governor in 2017 as part of the Green Party ticket.
“And it happened again, I drove around the block, followed him, and then the second time he drove around the block and drove away.”
Pangemanan rushed into Kaper-Dale’s car and they drove to the church. Kaper-Dale, who maintained a listserv with church members and the borough at large, sent out a notice of Pangemanan’s run-in with federal immigration officials.
ICE agents at the residence of Harry Pangemanan, Credit: Seth Kaper-Dale
By noon, the mayors of Metuchen and Highland Park, different council members and two dozen area members of the Deportation and Immigration Response Team (DIRE), crammed into the sitting room along with Pangemanan. Together, they voiced a commitment to provide sanctuary.
Two others were not so lucky: that same day, federal ICE officials (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) detained Gunawan Liem, of Franklin Park and Roby Sanger of Metuchen.
The two were dropping their kids off at school, where ICE agents had been staking out in hopes of catching the two. Both men have been detained at the Essex County jail, according to Kaper-Dale.
Since the inauguration of President Donald Trump in January 2017, the presidential administration has ramped up the removals of undocumented immigrants; in many cases for non-violent crimes.
In many cases, federal agents would stake outside schools, as well as municipal and state courts, in the hopes of whisking away an undocumented immigrant.
By tradition, religious buildings have generally been off-limits from ICE officials, and so an undocumented immigrant with an order of removal from the feds can seek sanctuary there indefinitely.
Arthur Jemmy, an Edison resident, sought refuge at the church in October 2017. He’s been living there since.
The other resident, Yohanes Tasik of Avenel, has been living in the church for 11 days. Tasik checked with immigration officials and brought his three-year- old daughter to the meeting, which he credits as the reason ICE didn’t detain and deport him on the spot. Instead, they put on an ankle-monitoring bracelet.
Tasik, like Pangemanan, was ordered to report for another check-in with ICE, but he opted to head to the church. The circumstances have proven extremely disruptive for the three men's families; they're all breadwinners, and in at least one of the families the only one who knows how to drive.
Each wife had made it to the emergency meeting but declined to be named or photograph.
“We work hard, we pay tax, we never do anything criminal,” said one of the refugee’s wives through a stream of tears.
“My daughter, the first one, her dream is to become an engineer and then the second one, her dream is become a pediatrician. If something happened between me and my husband, I think it’s gonna kill their dream.”
Many of these men came to the United States just at the onslaught of the Sept. 11 terrorist
attacks, which radically changed the process by which one can apply for political asylum in the
Prior to Sept. 11, they all would have been able to apply for the status given their history fleeing religious persecution, but as men from a Muslim-majority country, that’s been caught up in limbo.
As the meeting drew on, Congressman Frank Pallone, whose legislative district includes Highland Park, and Gov. Phil Murphy, appeared at the church.
Murphy came to hear some concerns from the three and their wives and children, all the while making vows of policies he intends to push to protect undocumented immigrants living in the state.
“I don’t have any quick reaction to it, but I think answering something with nothing is not an option,” Murphy told reporters. “These are wonderful people.”
Earlier this week, state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal announced that New Jersey would be joining more than a dozen states in a federal lawsuit challenging Trump’s decision to end DACA.
The Obama-era order shields undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as kids from being deported by issuing them years-long work permits.
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.