Law & Justice

Indonesians Taking Sanctuary in Highland Park Church to Return Home

Vigil outside the church on the morning of Jan. 28. Credits: Daniel J. Munoz

HIGHLAND PARK, NJ - Three Indonesian Christians taking sanctuary in a Highland Park church will be able to return home, after a federal judge issued an order halting their deportation.

Late Friday night, U.S. district judge Esther Salas issued a temporary restraining order to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, preventing them from moving forward with any deportation attempts of Indonesian Christians living in New Jersey without legal status.

Currently, three Indonesian Christians are taking sanctuary in the Reformed Church of Highland Park. ICE has a policy of not pursuing deportations on individuals while they’re residing in places of worship.

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As a result, a person with deportation orders might stay in a religious site indefinitely. Other "sensitive locations" include schools and hospitals. In January, ICE removed courthouses from that category. 

The order means that the three Indonesian Christians, Pangemanan of Highland Park, Arthur Jemmy of Edison and Yohanes Tasik of Woodbridge, can return to their homes without concern of being detained and deported by ICE agents, according to Rev. Seth Kaper-Dale, an immigrants' rights activist and head of the church.

Jemmy has been in the church since October 2017 and Tasik since mid-January.

“We are extremely heartened and relieved,” said Farrin Anello, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU-NJ, who's involved with the case.

The hold will be in place indefinitely, while Salas reviews the class action suit brought forward by the New Jersey Civil Liberties Union (ACLU-NJ) on behalf of Pangemanan and two Indonesian residents who were detained by ICE.

Pangemanan came into the church on the morning of Jan. 25, after ICE agents tried to detain him just as he was about to drive his daughter to school.

That same morning, ICE detained two other Indonesians, Roby Sanger of Metuchen and Gunawan Liem of Franklin Park, who are also plaintiffs in the class action suit. The two are being held at the Essex County Jail and it is uncertain if they will be released in light of the decision.

A spokesperson for ICE could not be immediately reached for comment.

With the order in place for the next few weeks, Pangemanan, Jemmy and Tasik can return to their homes without worry they’d be scooped up and detained by ICE agents.

“I just thank God,” Pangemanan said.

The argument of the class action suit, filed by the ACLU-NJ’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, was two-fold. It argued first, that the plaintiff’s detention and deportation would deprive them of a constitutionally-guaranteed right to apply for asylum.

Second, the suit argued that U.S. law prohibits deportation back to a country where the person could face religious persecution and violence.

It’s uncertain how long Jemmy, Pangemanan and Tasik will be shielded by operations by ICE agents.

The hold is only in effect until Salas makes a decision on the case, Anello noted. The plaintiffs will have to their written arguments by Feb. 16, the plaintiff’s by March 2, and counter-arguments from the plaintiffs by March 9.

"I feel strongly that there is not a huge risk for going back a normal life for the next five weeks," Kaper-Dale told congregants at an impromptu celebratory church service on the morning of Feb. 3.

Allen noted the order only prohibits deportation and transfer between facilities, say from the Essex County Jail to one in California. No mention is made of detention, so strictly speaking, ICE agents could still arrest Jemmy, Pangemanan and Tasik.

Though Allen was doubtful that ICE would detain the three, as was Kaper-Dale.

“It would be really concerning in my mind, if after a judge has taken the step to say what this judge said today, if ICE continued to round people up in put them in detention,” Kaper-Dale said.

Kaper-Dale added: “Part of me feels like we should try to live normal lives, knowing that there is a risk, but not living with the same level of fear of that risk.”

The order came just a few days after Pangemanan had a health episode, with his blood pressure rising to a worrisome level, according to Kaper-Dale.  

“It was purely driven by the anxiety of what was going on,” Kaper-Dale said. “I told him about the passport thing and he started shaking and he couldn’t stop shaking for three hours.”

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.

Editor Daniel J. Munoz,

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