HIGHLAND PARK, NJ—For the first time in four months, Arthur Jemmy stepped out on the streets of New Jersey without fearing arrest on February 3.
The previous day, a federal judge in Newark ruled to temporarily protect Jemmy, an undocumented Indonesian immigrant—and others in his situation—from deportation by immigration officials.
Were it not for the ruling handed down by Judge Esther Salas, and the dramatic events that led to it, Jemmy would have remained a “fugitive” from federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents.
Since October 2017, Jemmy and his wife had been living in “sanctuary” at the Highland Park Reformed Church, where co-pastors Seth Kaper-Dale, and his wife, Stephanie, opened their doors to the Indonesian immigrant community.
“I had told Arthur when he moved in, this time we’re going to get someone to help us with a lawsuit,” Seth Kaper-Dale told New Brunswick Today.
Kaper-Dale ran for governor last year and has been with the church since 2001.
During his time as a pastor, he has morphed into a prominent defender and spokesman for Central Jersey’s undocumented Indonesians, many of whom are members of his congregation.
Even before his run for office, Kaper-Dale had devoted much of his time to raising awareness of the issues faced by immigrants here in Central Jersey.
Indonesian Christians, most of whom are of Chinese ethnicity like Jemmy, began entering the United States in the 1990’s to escape religiously-motivated violence.
In 2000, Jemmy was in church back in his Indonesian hometown when a mob wielding machetes disrupted the service and beheaded his pastor.
The church was set on fire, and Jemmy, who fled with his family and the rest of the congregation, remembers seeing plumes of smoke rise in the distance. His parents put together their savings and Jemmy arrived in the US within a year of the incident.
Kaper-Dale still recalls the night, back in 2006, when 35 men were taken by immigration authorities conducting a raid targeting Indonesians in the Avenel section of Woodbridge.
Many would have qualified for “asylum,” but applications for that kind of protection must be filed within one’s first year in the United States.
Many in the local Indonesian Christian community were simply unaware of this requirement. Most of them came here on tourist visas, which they overstayed.
The Kaper-Dales responded to the 2006 raid by advocating on behalf of others in the same situation. They eventually allowed other undocumented Indonesian Christian immigrants to stay in their church in 2012, garnering national media attention which led to ICE backing off from its efforts to deport them.
But it wasn’t until the events of January 25, 2018, when two Indonesian men were arrested by ICE after taking their children to school, and a local community leader narrowly averted the same fate by seeking sanctuary, that the case of Central Jersey’s undocumented Indonesian Christians once again sprang into the public eye.
Just ten days earlier, Harry Pangemanan had been awarded the Martin Luther King Humanitarian Award by the Borough of Highland Park, in recognition for his work rebuilding over 200 homes in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
Pangemanan came to the US in 1993. He met his wife here, and his children are American citizens.
He first sought sanctuary in 2012, staying at the Highland Park Reformed Church for nine months.
Pangemanan is a “minister of disaster relief” for the church, leading groups of people in recovery efforts in the wake of natural disasters.
“First of all, people need help. I had my times. My family was taken care of by the church and the community, so when I was free [from sanctuary], I decided to do this work,” he said.
He had recently returned after a two-week trip to Texas, where he and his team cleaned up and repaired houses damaged by Hurricane Harvey.
Pangemanan, who lives in Highland Park, told NBToday that his first stint in sanctuary ended after an accommodation worked out with ICE assured undocumented Indonesians like himself that they would be protected from deportation for another five years.
However, the progress made during that period was undone after President Donald Trump took office, with people like Pangemanan now considered “criminal aliens” for overstaying their visas.
“John Tsoukaris — Field Office Director of ICE in Newark — was not keen on the precedent set by his predecessor Scott Weber. He came to power and felt that people with final deportation orders should be deported even though the spirit of the Obama administration at the time was that prosecutorial discretion should be utilized,” said Seth Kaper-Dale.
“He was going after them even though his predecessor agreed with us that these folks would have won their asylum claims if it were not for the one-year time bar that was put in place in the late 90’s that they didn’t know about when they arrived here.”
In May 2017, another Indonesian man from Metuchen, Arino Massie, was deported to Indonesia after a routine check-in with ICE, along with three other Indonesian men who Kaper-Dale said were “tricked” by ICE into showing up for the meeting. All four men reported regularly for annual check-ins with ICE; on the day they were detained without warning, they were asked to report with their passports.
Massie had been in the United States for sixteen years. His 13-year-old son learned of his father’s deportation when he returned from school.
Eight months later, on January 25, the two men dropping their children off for school were detained by ICE and taken to Essex County Jail. Their arrests came exactly one year after President Trump signed the executive order directing ICE to deport anyone in the country illegally, not just those with serious criminal records.
Around the same time that Metuchen resident Roby Sanger and Franklin Park resident Gunawan Liem were being arrested by ICE agents, Pangemanan feared he might soon suffer the same fate.
Pulling out of his driveway to drop his 15-year-old daughter off at school, he saw an unmarked SUV parked outside his house.
Worried that it might be ICE, he asked his daughter to walk to school, and went back indoors.
He called Kaper-Dale, who came over and took him to the church where he joined the Jemmy family and Yohannes Tasik, a warehouse worker and father of a three-year old girl, in sanctuary.
Kaper-Dale returned to Pangemanan’s house and broadcast video of ICE agents knocking at his door.
Later that day, new Governor Phil Murphy headed to the church of his one-time electoral opponent and assured the families there of his support. Congressman Frank Pallone was also at the church, along with other elected officials.
ICE’s targeting of Pangemanan, Sanger, and Liem provoked outrage from many county residents, leading to large demonstrations in Highland Park and Metuchen.
Within 24 hours of the Governor’s visit to the church, the homes of Jemmy and Pangemanan were broken into and trashed.
A neighbor heard noises in Jemmy’s apartment and called the police. Pangemanan’s daughter returned home from school with an escort and saw the front door ajar, soon learning that their home had also been vandalized.
Both families lost cash, jewelry, and as Kaper-Dale discovered the following week, their passports, as well as the student ID’s of the Pangemanan children.
On Facebook, an outraged Kaper-Dale linked ICE with the break-ins. In an email to Asbury Park Press reporter Steph Solis, ICE press secretary Jennifer Elzea denied any such connection, and called the suggestion “patently false.”
On February 1, Kaper-Dale held a meeting of Detention and Immigration Response to Emergency (DIRE), the grassroots group organized by him to defend and alert the community of potential ICE action in their neighborhoods.
At the meeting, he told the nearly 60 people assembled in the church, “It is not known if sanctuary will last 6 days or 6 months.”
Volunteers came forward, offering to cook and provide child care for what looked like a growing number of families.
But Kaper-Dale also helped to recruit legal assistance for the men facing deportation, including those in sanctuary and those in detention.
The next day, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and attorney Paul Weiss filed a class action suit on behalf of Jersey’s Indonesian Christians.
Amol Sinha, Executive Director of ACLU’s New Jersey branch told New Brunswick Today that Judge Esther Salas’ order is a “stay of removal” that prohibits ICE from targeting the Indonesian Christians of New Jersey for deportation.
Moreover, the detained men will not be removed from Essex County Jail. This is a good thing, said Sinha, because ICE might otherwise be able to transfer them to detention centers out of state.
On February 8, Congressman Pallone called on Tsoukaris to release the two men and a third, Darlin Sinaga of Woodbridge, from ICE custody while their immigration cases are pending.
On the Sunday after the ruling, during morning service, Kaper-Dale announced the official end of sanctuary for the families who had been living in the church.
“There is a tremendous sense of relief,” Kaper-Dale said.
Pangemanan’s family stood in front of the congregation, as worshippers formed a chain around them and prayed.
Wearing a white jersey, Pangemanan looked composed, a different man than how he appeared during the DIRE meeting only a few days earlier.
“I’m going to stay positive,” he said. “I feel safe about going out and doing my work, mainly because of the community. They have been very very supportive.”
But the well-being of his children is his priority.
“My first plan is to make my daughters feel comfortable in our home again—make them feel safe, and not worry, after this trauma.”