Indonesian Christians Face Trump's Deportation Crackdown

Aug 22, 2017

Under prior administrations, Christian Indonesian immigrants living illegally in the US were required to check in with immigration officials every few months, but they were not deported. Under President Trump, that’s changing.

Twenty-three Indonesians in New Hampshire arrived at a check-in on August 1st in Manchester and were told they would be deported within a month, to a home country where they fear religious persecution.

Their church, Marantha Indonesian United Church of Christ, celebrated Indonesian Independence Day on Saturday, a day of games and music that masked the community's anxiety. 

The congregation is predominantly immigrants from Indonesia who came to the US to escape the persecution of Christians in their majority-Muslim country. Three weeks ago, the news that more than twenty of their members would be deported caught everyone by surprise.

“It was hard," Pastor Sandra Pontoh said. Those slated to be deported, she said, “worry about their children, they worry about going back to Indonesia.” 

One person from the church, Terry Rombot, was arrested at that check-in. He’s being held at Plymouth County Correctional Facility, and his lawyer says he could be deported as soon as this week.

Behind a table with fried plantains, a close friend of Rombot, who didn't want her name to be used, breaks into tears when I ask about him. Rombot has a heart condition that he takes medication for daily, she said. “If Terry goes back to Indonesia, they don’t have the medicine, so we worry about his sickness.”

Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, won’t say when Rombot will be deported or why he was arrested.

Rombot, like others in his community, arrived here in the late 90s, when violence against Christians was at its worst in Indonesia. They overstayed their visas, and applied for asylum but  never got it.

Around seventy Indonesians are now living illegally in New Hampshire and surrounding states. ICE, however, knows they’re here and their locations. In some cases, ICE has their passports. But for years, these immigrants haven’t been deported.

“There’s more people here illegally than we have resources to deport," says Erin Corcoran, a legal consultant and former UNH law professor. She says this is the reality of immigration courts across the country. “Right now they’re scheduling hearings for about two years out, just to give you a sense of the backlog. . . Immigration lawyers and enforcement officers, just like police and prosecutors, have to prioritize who they’re going to use a finite set of resources on.” 

The government has prioritized criminals and gang members, anyone who poses a risk to the public. People like the Indonesians in New Hampshire were not a priority.

But in January, days after his inauguration, President Donald Trump signed an executive order broadening deportation priorities and giving more power to local immigration officials in deciding who to deport.

When the group of Indonesians from Madbury came for their regular check-in with ICE this month--a normally bureaucratic proceeding they had gotten used to-- they were told to return in September with plane tickets back to Indonesia.

After the Independence Day festivities, Pastor Sandra Pontoh sits with members of the church. Their immediate concern is Terry Rombot, the man currently detained by ICE, and the group discusses holding a prayer vigil in Massachusetts. 

Rombot will not appear before a judge, according to his lawyer, although some of the others facing deportation may try to reopen their asylum cases.

As friends and family depart the church, a cell phone rings, and is handed to Pontoh. Terry Rombot is on the other end, calling from jail.

If Rombot is deported, he says, “it won’t be safe for me. Until now, the situation in Jakarta is not safe. There are still so many radical Muslims." He adds, "I’m hoping that the senators, the congresswomen, and the pastors will be able to help me.” 

Rombot’s health is stable at the moment and he’s been taking his medication.

Pontoh, however, fears the situation will get worse, and that more of the immigrants in her community without legal status could receive deportation dates too. ICE declined to comment on the future of those immigrants who have yet to be given deportation dates. 

“Whatever’s going to happen is not in our hands," Pontoh says, "but God’s hands."