This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Elly and Fnu (not their real names) came to the United States in 1999, fleeing religious and political persecution in their home country of Indonesia.
They are ethnic Chinese and Christian and were living in a country where both groups were major targets during deadly riots in 1998 set off by the nation’s economic collapse.
“Bad things were happening,” said Sinta Penyami Storms, who runs an Indonesian dance studio in South Philadelphia and is herself an immigrant. Food was scarce and unemployment was high.
“It was unsafe for them to go out. There was a lot of robbery of houses and rapes of Chinese Indonesians,” Storms said. More than 300 people were killed in the unrest.
The couple are Catholic. Indonesia is majority Muslim, and although it is not a religious state, Christians face discrimination. “It’s hard to go to church; your church can’t get a permit to have a house of worship. They’re a double minority,” Storms said.
The couple fled to the United States, applied for political asylum, and settled in South Philadelphia, where there was an established Indonesian community.
Their asylum petition wound its way through the system. In 2007, it was denied. They appealed. In 2009, 10 years after they first arrived, their appeal was turned down, and they were ordered deported.
By this time, they had a life here. They had bought a house. They had jobs and paid taxes. They were active parishioners in their church and had no trouble with the law. They had two daughters, who are U.S. citizens; one of them is a minor.
Both the husband and wife work in delicatessens, but they had high hopes of a prosperous life in the United States for their daughters and were determined to get them a good education.
Facing all this, they decided to stay.
As Storms put it: “This is their home.”
On July 2, about 6:45 a.m., the couple were getting ready to go to work. According to accounts provided by friends and relatives, Fnu was in the driver’s seat of the car. Unbeknownst to them, agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had been monitoring their movements.
As Elly started to enter the car, two ICE vehicles came up and blocked it in. They were asked for IDs, turned them over, and were arrested on the spot. After spending the day at ICE headquarters on Filbert Street in Philadelphia, Fnu was taken to a detention center in Pike County. Elly was first taken to Delaware County, and then to a center in York.
Even though their daughters are U.S. citizens, the government is moving to deport them as fast as it can, said Christopher Casazza, an immigration attorney who has taken their case.
This is a “100 percent change in policy” from what generally happened before President Trump took office, said Casazza, a partner with the firm of Solow, Isbell & Palladino LLC, who has been working in immigration law for 10 years.
From a legal standpoint, being a parent of minor children who are U.S. citizens is a “non-factor” in deportation proceedings, Casazza said. In practice, however, under previous administrations, people in such situations who have no criminal record were generally allowed to stay under “orders of supervision” and required to check in periodically with immigration officials.
“It was called ‘staying the removal,’ but the current administration has done away with that altogether,” Casazza said. “They’re trying to clean up how many orders of supervision they have. They’re trying to get people off that list, and they’re doing that by detaining and removing them.”
City Council member Helen Gym’s office is trying to help the couple, and she called the Trump administration’s harsher policies regarding immigrants like this “immoral.”
“What happened to the family demonstrates the cruelty and the indifference the federal administration has towards a family that has lived a model life in this country for years and deserves a path to citizenship,” she said.
Gym recently was among city officials announcing a pilot program to find legal counsel for all low-income immigrants in Philadelphia who are detained.
She noted as well that the couple came to the United States “seeking freedom from religious persecution in their homeland, and it’s just outrageous that the last thing they get is any amount of Christian charity from the government.” The immigration officials “had no regard for the fact that they are the primary caretakers for a U.S. citizen minor; this irresponsible behavior puts a burden on our city.”
Indonesians are particularly vulnerable to deportation orders because, despite the continued harassment and sometimes violence in their country against ethnic Chinese and Christians, many of them have been denied asylum.
But even now, those rejected can have their cases reconsidered if they can demonstrate that circumstances in their home country have significantly worsened since they originally filed their petition.
An Indonesian Christian man recently did that, Casazza said, and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals issued an order that the Bureau of Immigration Affairs (BIA) take his petition seriously. This ruling provides hope for his clients, Casazza said; three days after the Philadelphia couple were detained, he filed petitions on their behalf to reopen their case “on the grounds that there are changes in the circumstances in their home country regarding the treatment of Christians.”
The Court of Appeals ruling in April, written by Judge (and former Pennsylvania first lady) Marjorie Rendell, chastised the BIA for “an abuse of discretion” by essentially ignoring reams of documentation and evidence presented by the petitioner backing his claim that conditions for Christians in his homeland had deteriorated.
“Because the BIA did not explain its conclusion and did not meaningfully consider much of the evidence presented by Liem, we will grant his petition for review, vacate the denial of his second motion to reopen, and remand to the BIA for further proceedings consistent with this opinion,” the decision said.
It made no finding of fact, but said the “evidence contradicting the BIA’s determination is strong enough to require the BIA to afford it more thorough consideration. We remand for the BIA to meet its heightened duty and meaningfully consider all of the evidence, which may or may not yield a different result.”
Casazza said: “The Third Circuit believes conditions could have significantly changed and could possibly be a basis for asylum.”
Casazza’s clients are heavily involved in their South Philadelphia Catholic parish. “Both volunteer regularly,” said their friend Storms.
The mother and the younger daughter performed in Storms’ dance company when Pope Francis was here.
One daughter is a student at Swarthmore, a highly selective liberal arts college. The other is enrolled at Masterman, the city’s premier magnet school.
They are understandably devastated at the prospect of losing their parents to deportation, according to a close relative of the couple who is looking after them.
“Every day the little one is still crying,” said the relative, who has legal status. “I help her to go to whatever activity she has to do, like her dancing.”
The older daughter, he said, “is quiet. I can’t really tell.”
He remembers the experience of violence and harassment against ethnic Chinese Christians, saying the majority population would turn on them during difficult times.
“If something bad happened to them, they did it to us. We don’t want our kids to experience stuff like this. Every time you want to do something, you have that kind of fear. It’s not good,” he said.
His relatives, he said, “want to get a better environment for their kids.”
Both Swarthmore officials and leaders of their parish church are doing what they can to offer support to the family.
Casazza said he is hoping for the best, mentioning the recent case of another Indonesian man who was deported two weeks after being picked up – as soon as immigration officials could complete the necessary paperwork.
For his clients, he said, “There’s still a risk they are removed while these motions are pending, but we are doing everything we can to make sure that doesn’t happen.”