This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
On an otherwise ordinary morning in July, Yulius and Ellyana Sukwanputra, who came to the U.S. from Indonesia two decades ago, were up before dawn and getting in their car on their South Philadelphia street to go to work –Yulius at a donut shop, Elly at a delicatessen.
But this morning would turn out to be different. As they tried to drive away, agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, blocked their car. Before the day was out, they had both been sent to detention centers for undocumented immigrants. They have been there ever since.
Until Monday. At an early morning hearing in immigration court at the York County prison, where Elly has been detained, Judge Kuyomars Q. Golparvar set bond at $2,500 each and the two were released later in the day, back to their families in time for Christmas.
More than 20 supporters and family members crammed into the two rows of benches at the back of the courtroom to show their support during the 20-minute hearing. Among them were members from their church community, St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in South Philadelphia, including the Indonesian chaplain, Fr. Kurniawan Diputra, and Sr. Gertrude Borres, who is the director for the pastoral care of immigrants and refugees for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
Councilmember Helen Gym, whose office had taken up their cause, was also present.
Their daughter Jacquelyn, 19, a sophomore at Swarthmore College, was in the front row. Daughter Cherilyn, 15, waited in the car; at 15, she was too young to attend the hearing, A 10th grader at Masterman, she spent the time reading Elie Weisel’s Night, his searing memoir of the Holocaust, an assignment for her English class.
When Judge Golparvar set the bond — lower than what the community had been expecting — eyes filled up with tears, and there was a burst of joy from the onlookers. Their church community, immigrant arts and advocacy groups, and Masterman parents had raised nearly $15,000 for the family.
Elly, a tall lanky woman with a long ponytail and wearing orange prison garb, beamed and turned toward the elated crowd. “Thank you,” she said. Her husband, detained in Pike County, was present at the hearing via a TV hookup.
It has been a long ordeal for the family and for their supporters, a case that particularly angered immigrant advocates for its heartlessness.
In 1998, the couple fled dangerous conditions in Indonesia for ethnic Chinese Catholics, and applied for U.S. political asylum. In the 12 or so years it took for their case, and its appeal, to wind its way through the court system, they established themselves in South Philadelphia, gave birth to two American citizen daughters, bought a house, paid taxes, and became active in a thriving Indonesian community at St. Thomas Aquinas parish.
When their second appeal was denied, and with no further path to citizenship or legal residency, they simply stayed, putting them in undocumented status.
While immigration officials in prior administrations had kept track of and occasionally deported people in their situation, it was virtually unheard of before the Trump era that they would have detained both parents of a minor child at the same time. On top of that, the two were separated in detention.
Legally, their case is complicated. After they were detained, attorney Christopher Casazza filed a lawsuit against the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) forcing it to make a decision on a “stay of removal” he filed on behalf of the couple.
The motion for the stay was based on the contention that the conditions which caused the couple to flee Indonesia had worsened since their asylum appeal had been denied more than a decade ago. The lawsuit argued that BIA could not simply ignore the contention, but had to take it seriously. “The lawsuit put pressure on BIA,” which then reopened removal proceedings, Casazza said in an interview. “This is exceedingly difficult to do under any circumstances, under any administration. It’s a major victory.”
At the hearing, as Judge Golparvar explained the case and asked questions, an attorney representing the Department of Homeland Security made no objections to any of the legal issues raised.
In the issue of the bond, Casazza pressed the couple’s case: their children, he said, “are quite exceptional,” one at a top Philadelphia high school and the other at Swarthmore, a highly selective liberal arts college. He noted the large crowd of supporters, and the press coverage. The couple had no criminal record. They had never tried to avoid immigration officials when they were pursuing their asylum case and required to check in.
Judge Golparvar, in determining the amount of bond, was most concerned whether the couple presented a “flight risk.”
Looking at the large crowd of supporters, the press coverage of the case, the fact that they own their home, have jobs, are active in their church, and have two daughters attending local schools, he decided it was not likely.
The case will now be transferred to immigration court in Philadelphia, and a final resolution is likely to take years. Casazza said — and the judge confirmed in his remarks from the bench — that apart from asylum the couple has another path to legal status. When their oldest daughter Jacquelyn turns 21 in a little more than a year, she will be able to sponsor them to live legally in the U.S.
“The 20-year-old can petition for them,” Golparvar said.
“That’s the plan, ” answered Casazza.
Afterward, in the parking lot, the jubilant supporters posed for pictures and joined hands in a circle to pray in thanksgiving.
The daughters and supporters gather in a prayer circle after the hearing. Photo by Dale Mezzacappa
“I did half the work,” said Casazza, who was bathed in gratitude from the couple’s family and friends. “The rest of the work was from the community.”
Tomy Sukwanputra, the girls’ uncle, took responsibility for his nieces while his brother and sister-in-law were detained.
“I feel great today,” he said, especially that the bond was lower than many people expected it to be.
Sister Borres from the archdiocese, who is Filipino, said that the Sukwanputras were personal friends. “Not just them, but their daughters also have been very involved in the parish,” she said. “They have helped in so many of our outreach programs. We are so happy. Ellyanna is a very caring mother.”
Fr. Diputra, who has been at St. Thomas for two years, said that the Indonesian Mass generally attracts between 170 and 180 people. The Sukwanputras “are very active in our community,” he said. St. Thomas, founded in 1885 for Italian immigrants, is now filled with people from other parts of the world, he said — Vietnamese, Hispanics, Filipinos. It also has what is now known as a CBC — Catholic black community.
Councilmember Gym was thrilled and relieved but also angry.
“I am outraged at a system that would abduct two people who lived their lives peacefully in Philadelphia with no warning,” she said. “I am outraged at a system that would take parents away from their children, leaving them terrified and abandoned. I am outraged at a system that kept Ellyanna and Yulius in detention on taxpayer dollars for over four months when they should handle this kind of case outside indefinite detention.”
Masterman Principal Jessica Brown and parents from the school had rallied to the family’s cause, as did Swarthmore officials, although Jacquelyn has been far more private about her ordeal. The director of international student programs at Swarthmore, Jennifer Marks-Gold, and her husband had made the drive to York the night before.
Tom Whitman, a professor of music at Swarthmore, is also a family friend and attended the hearing. He is the founder of Swarthmore’s Gamelan Semara Santi, an Indonesian percussion group, in which Jacquelyn plays. He met her parents at music and dance activities. “They came to a concert at Swarthmore,” he said. “It’s not often that I get to meet the parents of my students. They went out of their way to see the concert. I feel connected to them,” he said.
After the hearing, Jacquelyn rushed back to Swarthmore to take a Chinese exam. Cherylin, who aspires to be a pediatrician, clutched her copy of Weisel’s Night as she talked about her feelings outside afterward.
Her parents’ detention, she said, “made life really hard, everything I did at school got harder.” Being on her own she said, “it was more difficult to get around….when my uncle was at work, it was really lonely.” She and her sister tried to visit her parents on the weekends, but they were far away and it was hard.
Her parents have a great work ethic and love for education. Her mother, she said, studied engineering before leaving Indonesia. “I would say they are raising my sister and me to be good children. My parents are really easy to talk to and are always there for me.”
She added: “My parents are good people, and they haven’t done anything wrong.”
This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Ellyana’s name and to note that the case will now be transferred to Philadelphia from York.