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How Trump Is Using Bush-Era Laws to Deport Christians

The plight of Indonesian Christians living in New Hampshire and New Jersey reveals the deep roots of the current immigration regime.

John Moore/Getty Images

Henry was forced to board a flight from Newark to Jakarta in May. His deportation happened so fast that he couldn’t call his wife to tell her what had happened until his layover in Tokyo. When he landed in Indonesia, with nothing more than the clothes on his back, there was no one there to meet him. “We guessed his connection wrong, and he ended up sitting at the Jakarta airport for 18 hours alone, with no money,” said Reverend Seth Kaper-Dale of the Reformed Church of Highland Park in New Jersey, who has close ties to the undocumented Indonesian community. “He was just dropped on the other side of the world.”

David, another undocumented man in New Jersey, left behind his wife and teenage son when he was steered to the airport from a routine check-in at his local immigration office. John, a grandfather who was deported at the same time, told me he will “probably never see his kids or grandkids again.”

These deportees, whose names have been changed to protect their identities, didn’t realize it, but they were all walking targets for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. And not just in the months that Donald Trump has been president, but for nearly 15 years. In 2003, dozens of undocumented Indonesians registered for a post-9/11 program that could qualify as a “Muslim registry” of sorts. That program, the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, or NSEERS, was a database of adult male “noncitizens” from 25 countries, all Muslim-majority except North Korea, designed to monitor potential terrorists. The 83,000 entries, ironically, included a number of Christians, like David and John, who came from the world’s largest Muslim-majority country.

Six men from New Jersey were suddenly deported this year, while 47 in New Hampshire have been given orders to leave. They had all been living quietly in the United States for decades before being apprehended by an ICE that has been emboldened by the Trump administration. The New Jersey men were forced to board planes back to Indonesia, while those in New Hampshire have been granted a temporary stay of removal while a judge considers a lawsuit on their behalf. But the outlook is dim.

Indonesian Christians came to America in the 1990s partly because of flaring religious tensions as the Suharto regime collapsed in 1998. Today there’s another wave of religious intolerance in Indonesia, which crested last spring when Jakarta’s Chinese Christian governor was jailed for blasphemy, and continues to this day in a steady drip of anti-Christian actions.

Another grim irony of the deportations is that the Indonesian men in Central Jersey voluntarily registered themselves for NSEERS, under the encouragement of Kaper-Dale. They reasoned that doing so might improve their candidacy for legal status in the eyes of law enforcement if their asylum cases were ever reopened. “At the time, we thought honesty was the best policy. It turned out to be the very worst policy,” said Kaper-Dale. “If I could go back I’d say no way, don’t even register—that if there’s any government program for immigrants, just assume it’s something evil.”

The deep roots of NSEERS show how the seemingly unprecedented immigration turmoil of the Trump era—which has been roundly condemned for being “not normal”—is, in fact, deeply precedented. The patchwork nature of immigration regulations means that any individual’s legal status is subject to the whims of local, state, and federal authorities.

“The Indonesian community is an interesting case, as these are people originally identified by NSEERS who are now targeted for deportation precisely because of the fact that they have prior removal orders,” said Shoba Wadhia, an immigration law professor at Pennsylvania State University. “It’s fair to say there are parallels between some of the immigration policies developed after 9/11 and those of the present administration.”

The New Jersey Indonesians’ trials started long before Trump. They had a major scare in 2009, when 41 men received deportation orders based on their NSEERS registration. Kaper-Dale brokered a unique agreement with local immigration officials whereby 72 undocumented Indonesian men could remain in their homes if they checked in with ICE every month.

It was a tenuous agreement from the start. In 2011, a change of leadership in state ICE led to more deportation orders for those same men, leading five of them to seek sanctuary in Kaper-Dale’s church. David, the man who was deported in May, said of that period, “Frankly, I almost gave up. It was very hard to live in the sanctuary for eight months as I had a family that depended on me to pay rent, take my kid to school, and so forth.” They were eventually allowed to return to their families as long as they wore ankle monitors with GPS tracking.

After the 2016 election, the fragile set-up really started to disintegrate, starting with Trump voiding special ICE arrangements.

“There has been a noticeable increase in immigration arrests since the Trump administration began,” said New Jersey Congressman Frank Pallone, who reintroduced a bill last spring to allow undocumented Indonesians to reopen asylum claims. “These arrests have created anxiety in our communities and made it more difficult for local law enforcement to interact with immigrants and do their jobs.”

Mufazzar Chisthi, the director of NYU Law School’s Migration Policy Institute, said this was the point: “I think the intent of this administration is that no one feels comfortable, like they are potentially a target. Anxiety is the principal outcome.” Immigration arrests were up 38 percent in the first three months of the Trump administration compared to the same time last year, but there are actually fewer deportations now than under former President Barack Obama.

However, undocumented immigrants had a better understanding of where they stood under the Obama administration. “The previous administration was very transparent about prosecutorial discretion and policies, but that’s now far from the case,” said Wadhia. The Trump administration has revealed the extent to which America’s immigration system is layered with ad hoc regulations, which can be clear or obtuse depending on who is issuing them. Trump’s pledge to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program mirrors the Indonesians’ plight in its retraction of a nebulous contract. Like the Indonesians participating in NSEERS, DACA recipients were told: Make yourself known, and we’ll let you stay, for now.

Amanda Toar, a second-generation American, is in the unique position of being affected by both programs. Her father is an undocumented Indonesian Christian who registered with NSEERS and was deported 11 years ago, and now Amanda, a DACA recipient who came to America as a ten-year-old, is in danger too.

Toar remembers one of the first times her community was convulsed by anti-immigrant fervor, back in 2006. “There was a lawyer who came to our house and said, if ICE knocks on your door, you don’t have to answer, you can jump out the window,” she said. “Well, my dad did exactly that; he jumped out the window while a hundred officials waited outside.” She and her brother mutely watched it unfold. Three months later, her father was found and deported.

“And as for me, I didn’t even know that I was illegally in the country until I had to apply for my driver’s license,” she said. Toar couldn’t enroll in college and now works as a bartender in New York. “I chose to do the right thing and now I’m getting punished. My father did the right thing too,” she said. “I just feel like doing the right thing in this country is not enough.”

In the Bush years, when fear of terrorism was at a fever pitch, the logic of NSEERS was not widely questioned. David and John both worked in warehouses and factories in America; after 9/11 and NSEERS, they instantly became potential terrorist fugitives.” In the program’s nine years of active operation, more than 13,000 men were placed in deporation proceedings—but it didn’t generate a single terrorism conviction. “Many individuals were deported through secret proceedings that took place without due process of law,” according to a 2012 report on the “NSEERS effect,” which went on to assert that “the specifics of NSEERS reveal it to be a clear example of discriminatory and arbitrary racial profiling.” A spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security admitted it was “redundant and did not provide any increase in security.”

Despite this, NSEERS made far less of a splash than Trump’s original travel ban on seven Muslim-majority countries. It was only last December, with the clock running out before Trump’s inauguration, that Obama dismantled NSEERS for good. (In 2011, he took the 25 cited countries off the list but left the program infrastructure dormant.)

It took the prospect of a President Trump, then, to finally kill an admittedly ineffective, dubiously premised operation like NSEERS. It may be the case that the backlash to the government’s current immigration regime, rather than its actual content, is what is actually not normal. “Historically, presidents have had huge leeway with immigration,” said Chisthi. “In challenging Trump’s travel ban, for instance, courts were essentially abandoning precedent.”

Still, if meaningful reform does happen as a result of unusual public engagement with immigration issues, it will only have come after hundreds or thousands of families have been pulled apart, like those of David, John, and Amanda.