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Broken Promises: How Obama’s Immigration Failures Have Put a New Jersey Community on Edge

Saul Timisela was supposed to report for deportation at seven o’clock Thursday morning, but he didn’t show up. Instead, he went to the Reformed Church of Highland Park, New Jersey, where, as of this writing, he is still seeking sanctuary. An immigrant who arrived in the U.S. from Indonesia in 1998 after fleeing religious violence, Timisela suffers from hypertension, heart disease, and liver disease. He does not have a criminal record, say advocates speaking on his behalf. In short, he does not appear to be the type of immigrant that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) claims to prioritize. But he is just one of many such immigrants who currently fear that their lives may be upended at any moment.

Last summer, when the Obama administration issued a memo encouraging immigration officials to abstain from deporting long-term, non-criminal undocumented immigrants, the Indonesian community to which Timisela belongs felt a sense of relief. Many had fled persecution in their home country, including Timisela. (His brother-in-law, a pastor, had been found decapitated in his burnt-out church.) Timisela and his wife, settling in New Jersey, lived in uncertainty for more than a decade. Last summer, they thought they could finally legitimize the lives that they had built in their adopted home.

But in the past few weeks, the Newark ICE office has sent letters to several members of this community, telling them to report to ICE offices with a plane ticket in hand. Eight men, none of whom has a criminal record, have been outfitted with electronic-monitoring ankle bracelets. This is usually a prelude to arrest and deportation—as it was in the case of Timisela, who is one of the eight. For some, these recent developments have led to panic. Families with children or spouses who are U.S. citizens are making plans for possible separation. Activists, who had cautiously celebrated earlier arrangements with authorities, feel spurned. It’s been about nine months since the Obama administration’s proclaimed shift in policy, and many are still waiting for an actual change. As Timisela’s predicament shows, they don’t have unlimited time.

HOW DID THIS happen? In the late 1990s, Indonesia was wracked by religious violence that emerged from two concurrent crises—the economic meltdown of 1997 and the fall of the dictator Suharto, who stepped down in 1998. A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report from 1999 referred to a “virtual war between Christians and Muslims” that displaced 30,000 people in one province; an HRW official testified to “Christian and Muslim neighbors hacking each other with machetes.” Hundreds of Indonesian Christians who fled the violence settled near Edison, New Jersey, their numbers swelling to about 800 by 2002. Many had a plausible case for asylum, but they were not organized or ready to seek out lawyers and complete paperwork. When the deadlines to file for asylum passed, few knew that they had missed their best chance to stay in the United States.

At first, it didn’t seem like there was much to worry about. Members of the community found jobs, married, and had kids. An apartment complex where the landlord didn’t require credit checks became became a hub for the immigrants. Soon, many were living in “mixed households”—some family members had legal status or citizenship, and others did not.

But after September 11, 2001, a new federal program, the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), required the registration of non-citizens from certain (mostly majority-Muslim) countries. Community leaders—worried about the consequences of noncompliance—encouraged the Indonesians to register. “If you didn’t report,” says Reverend Seth Kaper-Dale, whose congregation includes many of the Indonesian immigrants, “it seemed like you were a terrorist fugitive.” Many took the advice of Kaper-Dale and other leaders and came forward.

But the local ICE office did not respond as the community hoped. Melinda Basaran, a New Jersey immigration lawyer who has worked with the Indonesians, says that “a good portion” of the community was deported as a result of complying with NSEERS. One alleged example occurred in May 2006, when ICE—acting, most believe, on the information the Indonesians had volunteered when registering with NSEERSraided the apartment complex where many of the Indonesians had settled. They arrested 37 people, all of whom were eventually deported. At least 20, according to Kaper-Dale, were fathers. “Persons who did not comply with NSEERS are in a better situation today,” Basaran argues. “There’s no consequences held against them for not complying.” (NSEERS was dissolved in 2011.)

Still, despite the community’s experience with NSEERS, Kaper-Dale thought that coming forward might prevent more raids. In 2009 and early 2010, about 70 Indonesiansincluding Timisela and the seven others who are now wearing ankle braceletssurrendered themselves to ICE and were subsequently allowed to attain orders of supervision (which allowed them to receive work permits), provided that they tried to obtain legal status. The deal led to a fragile sense of relief, and it seemed a harbinger of a more humane immigration policy under the Obama administration. These hopes were apparently confirmed in 2011, when ICE issued its memo discouraging enforcement actions against long-established, non-criminal immigrants. “When the June prosecutorial discretion memo came out,” Kaper-Dale says, “I thought we were in the clear.” But today, the Indonesians’ arrangement appears to be collapsing.

Officials at ICE were unable to provide a clear answer as to why the deal from 2009 seemed to be unraveling. One government official suggested to me that the local field office, which is now under different leadership than when the deal was struck, simply reversed its stance. “In the face of all this pressure,” the official said, “they’ve sort of dug in their heels.” Another official from the Newark office suggested that enforcement was accelerating because it had become apparent that the immigrants involved had exhausted all available avenues of acquiring legal status.

Whatever the explanation, ICE’s newfound zeal clearly contradicts the spirit of the administration’s memo from last summer. Many in the community hope to find relief in a bill sponsored by Democratic Representative Carolyn Maloney to allow those immigrants who arrived during the peak of the violence to re-file their asylum claims. The bill has gained momentum recently, obtaining a Republican co-sponsor in New Jersey Representative Chris Smith.

The ICE Newark Office has stated that “ICE is unable to suspend the removal or issue an indefinite order of supervision to any one class of aliens.” But this misses the point. As individuals, most of these immigrants appear to qualify for relief. And despite a directive from above, local ICE authorities do not appear prepared to grant them that dignity.

Nathan Pippenger is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.