By SAMANTHA HENRY, Associated Press
HIGHLAND PARK, N.J. (AP) — Inside the New Jersey church where he now lives, Saul Timisela recounted Friday how as a Christian youth leader, he fled his native Indonesia after finding the desecrated corpse of his brother-in-law following an attack by anti-Christian extremists that destroyed their city.
Timisela, who has been ordered deported from the United States, has been given sanctuary by The Reformed Church of Highland Park, hoping that federal legislation sponsored by New York and New Jersey lawmakers will give him the chance to reapply for asylum.
"We're here (to) have a good life. We came to the U.S. to have a better life," Timisela told a group gathered at the church for an event marking Good Friday.
"This is not making up a story. This is the truth," he said, speaking through tears. "We're lucky we (didn't) get killed at that time," he added, referring to the burning of churches and other attacks on Christians on his native Ambon Island following the fall of longtime dictator Suharto in 1998. "God blessed us."
The 45-year-old Timisela and his wife have been sleeping in quarters he jokingly calls "5-star accommodations," in a small room within the church, with access to the church's cafeteria for meals. They don't travel outside church grounds, however, as another parishioner was picked up recently by immigration officials following a Sunday service. Two other Indonesian Christians facing deportation have since joined Timisela in the church, granted sanctuary by the Rev. Seth Kaper-Dale.
Ross Feinstein, a spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said all three men have gotten final deportation orders. He said Timisela was first given the order in 2006 and offered voluntary departure but failed to leave. He was again ordered to surrender on March 1 of this year, but failed to do so, Feinstein said. Now Timisela is considered an immigration fugitive.
"Immigration fugitives — individuals who ignore the direction of an immigration judge to depart the country — are an enforcement priority for ICE," Feinstein said.
ICE generally does not conduct enforcement actions at sensitive locations, including places of worship, without prior approval from the agency headquarters or unless the action involves national security or an imminent risk of violence or physical harm, Feinstein said.
New Jersey ICE officials have acknowledged meeting with Kaper-Dale to discuss the Indonesian's situation, and they extended the stays of several of the men facing deportation, and allowed orders of supervision in lieu of detention in other instances. But ICE officials emphasize that agency rules do not allow for the suspension of removal orders or the granting of indefinite orders of supervision to any one class of immigrants.
U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-NY, who attended the event Friday and is sponsoring the bill, said hundreds of Indonesians fled the island nation between 1996 and 2003, when more than 1,000 churches were destroyed by anti-Christian extremists in the majority Muslim nation.
The U.S. government allowed many Indonesian Christians to come to America on tourist visas in the chaotic aftermath of the fall of the Suharto regime. Many worked, established lives in the U.S., and had American-born children.
Things changed after 9/11, however, when men between the ages of 16 and 65 who had entered the U.S. on temporary visas from predominantly Muslim nations were required to register with the U.S. government or be classified as terrorist fugitives.
Indonesians of all religions — hailing from the world's most populous Muslim nation — were required to register. Many did not expect to face deportation back to Indonesia as Christians facing persecution, but found themselves in legal limbo as they had surpassed the time limit for applying for U.S. asylum.
Maloney emphasized her bill would not grant them amnesty, but allow Indonesian Christians caught in that limbo to reapply for U.S. asylum.
"Americans of all faiths and creeds simply cannot stand by and watch these brave men and women be ejected wholesale from the United States due to a narrow reading of immigration law," Maloney said. "This is not the America we know and love."
Harry Pangemanan, an Indonesian member of the Highland Park church, estimates there are about 8,000 Indonesian Christians living in the Northeast. He said more than 70 Indonesian immigrants in New Jersey received deportation warning letters from the Department of Homeland Security in recent months, and more than 100 Indonesians in a community near Dover, N.H., got them as well. About two dozen Indonesians in the New York City area are also affected.
Rep. Frank Palone Jr., D-NJ, and others are co-sponsoring Maloney's bill.
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