The New Jersey Church Harboring Christian Indonesians Who Face Deportation Under Trump

Since Trump took office, Christian Indonesians who moved to the U.S. illegally decades ago after fleeing discrimination and persecution live under the specter of expulsion. One church in New Jersey has offered sanctuary to a few of them

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Arthur Jemmy, Harry Pangemanan and Yohanes Tasik at the Reformed Church of Highland Park.
Arthur Jemmy, Harry Pangemanan and Yohanes Tasik at the Reformed Church of Highland Park.Credit: Natan Dvir
Tzach Yoked
Tzach Yoked
Tzach Yoked
Tzach Yoked

HIGHLAND PARK, New Jersey – When Yohanes Tasik cheated on his wife with a woman down the street, he never imagined that the daughter who would be born from that affair would help save him from deportation three years later.

“For some years I have had to go every month to register with Immigration and Customs Enforcement,” Tasik says. “A few months ago, in September 2017, they decided to put an electronic ankle bracelet on me. No one explained why. Nothing had changed in my situation. They are probably afraid that I will flee and want to know where I am at all times.”

Tasik has lived in New Jersey for the past 29 years, since arriving in the United States on a direct flight from Indonesia in 1989. He was a young man in his twenties back then, seeking a better economic future thousands of kilometers from his homeland – the world’s largest Muslim country, where he and his family, who are Christian, were citizens but as such were persecuted and discriminated against. When he arrived, 12 years before the September 11 attacks, supervision of illegal immigrants was far less strict than it is today: The authorities tended to turn a blind eye, allowing newcomers lacking legal status to conduct an almost normal life; there was tacit agreement that as long as they didn’t break the law, government agencies would not intervene excessively in their lives.

Tasik’s acclimatization was gradual, he says. He found a job as a dishwasher in a local restaurant and afterward worked as a machine operator in a large New Jersey warehouse. He obtained a driver’s license, opened a bank account, acquired health insurance, married, had a social security number and was registered in the databases of almost all the official government bodies.

But even if his status as an illegal immigrant remained basically unchanged for almost three decades, America underwent a sea change before Tasik’s eyes. The 2001 terror attacks engendered extremely harsh enforcement procedures, including close supervision of entire Muslim communities, and led to the deportation of thousands of migrants. A year after 9/11, the notorious NSEERS surveillance program – National Security Entry-Exit Registration System – was established. Under it, hundreds of thousands of immigrants from countries with a Muslim majority were required to check in with ICE on a regular basis. The result, in many cases, was the immediate arrest and deportation of the undocumented person to his or her country of origin.

The second stage of the hardened attitude toward illegal migrants occurred under the Trump administration. In his campaign for the presidency, Donald Trump turned those immigrants into the enemies of the American nation, and in large measure was borne to the White House on the wings of the promise to deport them, close the borders to others and build a wall along the border with Mexico.

Yohanes Tasik.
Yohanes Tasik.Credit: Natan Dvir

“Three weeks ago, on the way to work,” Tasik relates, “I suddenly got a call from an ICE agent asking me to drop everything and return home immediately.” Tasik asked the agent what was so urgent. “He explained that they just wanted to check something in my ankle bracelet.” But Tasik wasn’t buying it: The unscheduled visit and the haste with which he was told to go home seemed highly unusual.

“I had to go, because they knew where I worked, but on the way I called my daughter’s mother, who lives two blocks away from me, and asked her to bring the child to my place. I knew that they couldn’t deport me if I was holding the hand of a 3-year-old baby,” he says.

Indeed, when Tasik arrived at his apartment building, in the central New Jersey town of Highland Park, about an hour southeast of New York City, none of the officials waiting for him even bothered to check his electronic device.

“There were three agents from ICE,” he recalls, “and you could see that they were angry because I’d brought the little girl with me. They shouted at me, ‘What is she doing here with you?’ They demanded that we go to her mother’s home and hand the girl over to her immediately. Luckily for me, her mother was smart enough not to open the door to them. If she had done that, I’m sure I would now be in Indonesia.”

In the end, the agents left, ordering him to report alone to their office three days later. But Tasik had no intention of doing that. He called Rev. Seth Kaper-Dale, who is senior co-pastor along with his wife, Rev. Stephanie Kaper-Dale, at the Reformed Church of Highland Park. The church, which has some 500 members, is affiliated with the Reformed Church in America, a Protestant denomination. The clergyman invited Tasik, a member of the congregation, to take refuge immediately in one of the church’s classrooms – and that’s where Tasik has lived for the past three weeks. The agents, he says, “called my mobile every day, sometimes twice a day. Until at one stage Rev. Seth asked me to call them and tell them that I was in his church and that if they wanted to talk to me they should call him. At that moment, their calls stopped.”

Although there has been no official declaration on the subject by the Trump administration, it’s everyone’s understanding that houses of worship are out of bounds to ICE and other government agencies.

'I knew that they couldn’t deport me if I was holding the hand of a 3-year-old baby.'

Yohanes Tasik

Tasik’s satisfaction at his victory over the authorities – who, he believes, were going to try by devious to detain and deport him from the country he hasn’t left for 29 years – is palpable. A large smile spreads across his wrinkled face as he tells the tale. Short, with a gaunt physique and the thick fingers of a laborer, he looks older than his 54 years. His English is broken but his firm manner of talking is one of a proud person who feels no need to apologize. “I don’t have a criminal record, I pay taxes. I hope the judge will be considerate of me. That is the story of the United States – to give you a second chance.”

Tasik was not alone in finding sanctuary in the Highland Park church: Three men have taken refuge there in recent months; the first one arrived some three-and-a-half months ago. The church has become a symbol of the struggle against the deportation of illegal migrants from the United States. 

On February 2, U.S. District Judge Esther Salas ordered a temporary halt to the deportation of Indonesian Christians residing in New Jersey without legal status, responding to a class action lawsuit filed by the ACLU. The three men initially feared that they could still be detained, but on Tuesday they finally left the church. 

‘Paralyzed with fear’

Like the other men, Tasik, too, refuses to go underground like an escaped criminal. He didn't leave the church while seeking shelter there, but he isn't ashamed of his story and doesn’t balk at telling it to the media.

Prior to the court ruling, we meet in a large space on the first floor, which serves as the church’s club room. Several plastic tables stand in the corner, with dozens of chairs around them. Elderly women come and go from the adjacent kitchen. The main sanctuary is upstairs. The whole building is abuzz with activity. Neighbors bring in bags with all manner of equipment, church members arrive with pots of home-cooked food, others come with essential items for everyday use – old clothes and toys for the children of those now living in the church. (The children, born in the United States, cannot be deported; they live at home but regularly visit their fathers.)

Social workers sit with the families on a volunteer basis, asking how they can help. Friends of the families take turns escorting the children to the local school and picking them up afterward. Lunch is served in the church dining room to the families and others for $6, and includes beans and a selection of salads and bread. Those who can’t afford to pay receive a free-meal coupon or are welcome to volunteer in the kitchen – washing dishes, slicing vegetables – in return for a hot meal.

Arthur Jemmy.
Arthur Jemmy.Credit: Natan Dvir

One of the people toiling in the kitchen is Arthur Jemmy, 42, also originally from Indonesia, who has been holed up here for over three months. In contrast to Tasik, when Jemmy arrived in the United States, he was in fear of his life, in the wake of ethnic riots that erupted in Indonesia in 1997. The climax came a year later with the resignation of the despot Hajji Suharto, and the turmoil included vicious persecution of the local Chinese Christian minority.

“On a Sunday in the year 2000, I was at church together with my family and my community,” Jemmy relates. “There were a lot of people, and the priest was just delivering the sermon, when suddenly the door opened and a group of armed men stormed in. Everyone was paralyzed with fear. One of the men told the preacher to approach him. I remember the priest asking everyone to stay calm, he said everything would be alright, we should not be hysterical. And then, in a second, they beheaded him before everyone’s eyes. His head lay on the floor next to his body. Everyone started to scream. One of the men asked us if we wanted to stay in the church or leave, because they were going to burn the building. A worshiper went over to the priest’s body, in order to remove it before the church went up in flames, but they told him to leave it there.”

A month later, Jemmy was aboard a plane on the way to New Jersey. He, too, adjusted relatively quickly to life in Highland Park. The local bank didn’t ask too many questions, nor did the Department of Motor Vehicles or the warehouse where he found a job. He married a local woman, sent money to his family in Indonesia and embarked on a comfortable new life in America. Jemmy even came to terms with the post-September 11 stricture of having to report regularly to ICE, as was then demanded of all migrants from Muslim-Majority countries. But in 2012, on one such visit, the authorities refused to renew his residency permit and he was told to leave the country immediately.

Then, as now, Jemmy took shelter in the Reformed Church of Highland Park. He was one of nine Indonesian migrants without legal status who hid out there during nine months in 2012-2013. During that period, the local Indonesian-expat community rented a central hall there every Sunday, forging bonds with the Kaper-Dales and leading many immigrants to join the church.

“That was a very difficult, stressful period, especially mentally,” Jemmy says of that time. “People who were used to getting up every morning and going to work were stuck here for months on end without being able to go outside, without being with the family.” Then, too, he spent the time doing tasks in the church and trying to create some sort of routine that would enable him to stay sane.

“I get up every morning at 7 and start in the kitchen,” he relates. “Wash dishes, slice fruits and vegetables for lunch. Then I wash the floor, sweep the floor in the corridor, clean the washrooms. Twice a week, I also take part in religious lessons with the pastor.”

'I remember the priest asking everyone to stay calm... And then, in a second, they beheaded him.'

Arthur Jemmy

Nevertheless, there is a difference between the two periods. In 2015, he underwent a serious work accident and now often needs the aid of a cane. “I was working in the warehouse, arranging items on high shelves,” he recalls. “Someone pushed the machine I was on and I fell to the floor from a height of 10 meters,” more than 30 feet.

He spent three months in hospital, the doctors told him he would probably never be able to walk again. “Fortunately, God gave me a second chance,” he says. Jemmy hasn’t worked since the accident; his wife, who also has no legal status but lives at home (the authorities rarely detain women), works in the same warehouse and provides for them both. Her salary is supplemented by donations from friends.

Jemmy’s lengthy stay in the church in 2012 ended in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, which pounded the eastern seaboard of the United States, battering New York and New Jersey especially. The Highland Park church, located not far from the ocean, became a major aid center for some of the thousands of people seeking temporary lodgings. Jemmy and the eight other migrants who were taking refuge there helped out wherever they could. Two months later, in what the church sees as a form of gratitude on the part of the authorities, the migrants were promised they would be safe if they left the church.

That promise – which was not enshrined in any official document but relied on the Obama administration’s tacit agreement that these people belonged to a persecuted Christian minority in Indonesia, and that their deportation would place them in mortal danger – was upheld until the advent of the Trump era. What began as inflammatory rhetoric aimed at migrants without legal status has quickly morphed into concrete actions, including the deportation of dozens of Indonesian migrants. Among the deportees in the past few months were four who had found refuge in the church with Jemmy in 2012.

“On September 25, I was supposed to report to the offices of ICE like I did every month,” he recalls now, “but after I heard about so many Indonesians being arrested and deported, I was afraid to go.” A few days later, he received a warning notice in the mail. “I was told that I had until October 9 to report to ICE, or I would be considered an escaped fugitive.”

Under the pressure of likely expulsion from the United States, Jemmy resorted to the same strategy he had used in 2012: He came to live in the church in October 2017, only leaving this past Tuesday. “Of course I am afraid,” he admits. “Trump says that he has no intention of breaking up families, that he only wants to deport the criminals, but I’ve seen how they deport people who didn’t do anything bad.”

The Reformed Church of Highland Park.
The Reformed Church of Highland Park.Credit: Natan Dvir

As if the threat of deportation and need to live in a church weren’t enough, he suffered another blow late last month, when his home was vandalized. The possibility that this was just a bad coincidence was ruled out when Jemmy learned that the home of one of the other migrants living in the church, Harry Pangemanan, was also ransacked and robbed. “They entered through a window, turned the place upside down and took my wife’s jewelry,” Jemmy relates.

Nevertheless, Jemmy is determined not to despair and, still less, to return to his homeland, where his parents and other relatives still live. Even though the brutal persecution in 1997-98, in the course of which more than a thousand churches in Indonesia were burned down has abated, the Christian minority continues to suffer from harsh discrimination, he says: “Our ID [in Indonesia] has a special rubric that states ‘Religion: Christian.’ If I look for work and the boss sees that I’m a Christian, he’s a lot less likely to hire me.”

Over the years, appeals courts in the United States have dealt with dozens of cases in which Indonesian migrants have sought refugee status. In a 2010 ruling, for example, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (with jurisdiction over California and other states) declared that although the Christians in Indonesia suffer from discrimination, they are not threatened by a permanent pattern of systematic persecution.

'I think that what America is experiencing now is a reign of evil. The immigrants are the easiest target, but if it’s up to Trump, it won’t end there.'

Seth Kaper-Dale

Spiritual and operational

Following the break-ins at the homes of people hiding out in his church, Rev. Kaper-Dale let loose two weeks ago with a fierce condemnation on the church’s Facebook page, leaving no doubt about who, in his view, bore responsibility for the ugly deeds. “I believe that these are coordinated attacks by ICE – the abusive arm of our out-of-control administration. Please share this news. Two of the families in sanctuary have had their homes broken into and ransacked while they have been in sanctuary. Abuse, abuse, abuse. Trump, get your filthy hands off our people.”

Two weeks later, when I met with him in the church’s dining room, he sounded more circumspect. “I don’t know if they were ICE agents or racist right-wing activists,” he said, “but whoever did it got a strong tailwind from President Trump and the hate he’s spreading all the time against immigrants.”

For the past four months, Seth Kaper-Dale has been both a spiritual leader and an operations officer: giving Bible lessons in the morning and meeting with members of Congress in the afternoon; preaching to 500 believers every Sunday and organizing transportation for the immigrants’ children during the week. 

Kaper-Dale, in his forties, handsome and well groomed, has headed the Reformed Church of Highland Park for the past 17 years with his wife, Stephanie. They have three daughters, aged 9, 12 and 14.

“I truly believe that the whole world should be one big place of refuge for all the people who live in it,” he says. “That is the central layer in my whole religious approach – that the sky, the sea and the land should be a secure refuge for everyone. But sometimes politics steps in and tries to wreck everything, and it’s our task to intervene and ensure that the world will continue to be a protected place for all its inhabitants.”

When the concept of fighting for global justice is overlaid by the close, personal acquaintance with those seeking refuge, an even deeper sense of religious mission arises that impels the Kaper-Dales.

Revs. Seth and Stephanie Kaper-Dale.
Revs. Seth and Stephanie Kaper-Dale.Credit: Natan Dvir

“Ten years ago, we held the baptismal ceremony for Harry’s daughter – he was already a member of the church then,” Rev. Stephanie Kaper-Dale relates, referring to Harry Pangemanan. “One of the most moving moments in the ceremony is when the water is sprinkled on the boy or girl and the crowd rises and promises to support the family, help raise the children, educate them according to religious values, assist them in times of trouble. That is the pillar of the whole ceremony and of our whole religious outlook, and we take that promise very seriously indeed.”

According to her husband, their commitment to the immigrants jelled even earlier: “Immediately after the attack on the World Trade Center, when the administration launched the NSEERS surveillance program, dozens of church members came to consult with me. They were afraid to register for fear of being deported. My view was that honesty was the best course of action, and I accompanied many of them to the ICE offices. I genuinely thought then that nothing bad could happen to someone who does the right thing.”

And it wasn’t just to ICE that the reverend accompanied them. “In 2009, Harry was arrested on immigration charges and taken to a detention facility in Elizabeth, New Jersey,” he recalls. “After two-and-a-half months in detention he was transferred to another facility in Washington state, on the other side of the United States.” The reason for the transfer wasn’t clear either to Kaper-Dale or to Pangemanan himself, who for his part was certain that he was being put on a plane to Indonesia. Kaper-Dale put on his clergyman’s garb and went to the airport in New Jersey. "I knew I absolutely had to see him before he was deported. By the time I got there, he was already on the plane.

“I told the security officer that I had to board the plane and pray with him for a few minutes for the last time. The security officer laughed at me. At one point I gave up and went to a corner to pray alone, but then a worker called me and let me enter the plane without anyone seeing.”

'We are described as criminals, drug dealers… that’s not true. I work hard, volunteer in the church and have paid taxes from my first day in the U.S.'

Harry Pangemanan

In the end, Pangemanan was sent to a facility in Washington. Two weeks later, during which the two co-pastors worked relentlessly for his release, he was flown back to New Jersey under a special regulation granting immigrants a temporary reprieve, but without lifting the threat of deportation.

Like Jemmy, Harry Pangemanan, too, fled Indonesia for fear of his life because of the violence perpetrated against the Chinese-Christian minority. His requests to be granted refugee status have been turned down time and again, in the wake of a 1996 change in the law stipulating that a request to receive that status must be submitted within a year of one’s entry into the United States.

“When I first came to the United States, no one asked me any questions,” Pangemanan recalls. “I got a job with a delivery company, my boss paid my salary, I got a driver’s license, I opened a bank account.” Of the three people interviewed here, his situation is probably the most sensitive. He’s lived in the United States for 20 years and is the father of two daughters, aged 15 and 11. Having been born in the United States, they are full-fledged Americans, possessing citizenship and legal status. They’ve only seen in Indonesia in pictures.

“The most painful part for me is the thought of what my two daughters are going through,” Pangemanan says, his voice breaking. “Since the agents came to our house, they haven’t stopped crying. They come here every day after school to keep me company, and they are trying to hold the family together.”

My conversation with Harry took place a day after the State of the Union address, in which President Trump spoke about his immigration policy and mentioned, among other things, a naturalization track for the 800,000 children of illegal immigrants under the Obama administration’s DACA program (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) in return for Congressional allocation of funds to build a wall along the border with Mexico; termination of the annual lottery for new immigrants; and cancellation of the visas of families of immigrants who are in the country without legal status – like those in the Highland Park church.

Harry Pangemanan.
Harry Pangemanan.Credit: Natan Dvir

Trump’s policies continue to enjoy broad popular support. For example, according to a CBS New survey conducted immediately after the State of the Union address, no fewer than 72 percent of those polled said that they are in favor of the president’s proposals on immigration.

“The people who want to deport us have a mistaken view of us,” Pangemanan says. “We are described as criminals, drug dealers. We are presented as an exploitative group who are extorting money from the state. That’s not true. I work hard, volunteer in the church and have paid taxes from my first day in the United States. Will all those who say we are taking jobs away from Americans agree to work 10 hours a day in the warehouse where I work?”

Seth Kaper-Dale has his own explanation for the rampant hostility of large numbers of Americans toward immigrants. “I think that what America is experiencing now is a reign of evil. The immigrants are the easiest target, but I have no doubt that if it’s up to Trump, it won’t end there. After the immigrants he’ll go after the gays, the women and the blacks.”

Do you know that, numerically, President Obama deported more illegal immigrants than any president before him, and in fact more than all previous presidents combined?

“You’re right, in his first term, the numbers he deported – it was a disaster. But in his second term he deported mainly new migrants. In addition, he never talked negatively about the immigrants, and he at least devised the program to protect immigrant children. Trump has created an atmosphere of hatred and hostility toward immigrants.”

All the immigrants who have taken sanctuary in your church are Indonesian Christians. Would you accept adherents of other faiths?

“Absolutely. Our connection to the Indonesian immigrants stems primarily from the fact that they worshipped here every Sunday. As far as I am concerned, whoever wanted to find asylum in my church would be accepted, irrespective of his religion, provided only that I could check him out properly. I want people who would be capable of integrating into the community, of living among us peacefully.”