Dec. 24, 2012— -- This Christmas marks Day 295 for a central New Jersey church playing host to a group of Indonesians living within its sanctuary.
Five Christian men remain at the church, hoping its brick walls and their own strong faith keep them from being deported. Three others from their families and congregation also immediately face being sent back.
Tonight, these men, with their wives and American-born children, will enjoy a Christmas Eve feast by dining on traditional dishes from their homeland. Exotic aromas will waft through the Reformed Church of Highland Park's neighborhood, as the men barbecue marinated chicken kebobs to be served with a cumin and garlic peanut sauce.
As in years past, the women prepare their Dutch influenced Southeast Asian holiday delights including tinorangsa, pork wrapped in collard greens seasoned with lemongrass, ginger, chili peppers and other spices, or kue nastar, traditional cookies baked with the dough folded over diced pineapple.
These savory and sweet Indonesian foods strongly contrast with the congregants' bitter memories of their homeland.
All say that they and their loved ones have been persecuted in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country, because of their religion and for some due to their Chinese ancestry.
In May 1998, Indonesian dictator Suharto resigned the presidency following violent and deadly student protests. In the chaos that followed the strongman's fall, mobs fought in the streets, entire neighborhoods burned and thousands died in this former Dutch colony. Gangs of radicalized Muslim extremists targeted Christians and other religious minorities throughout the country.
Yana Pangemanan, one of the eight people the Reformed Church is trying to protect, describes the hell her homeland had become when she fled it on May 13, 1998.
"It was a bad situation because racism against Chinese Indonesians was horrible," she told ABC News. "Jakarta's Chinatown was burned. Chinese women were being raped. They didn't care if you were Christian or Muslim, as long as you were Chinese like me, they wanted to kill you. They were killing people in the street, burning cars."
Pangemanan narrowly escaped the attack in a dramatic ride to the airport. Her Muslim taxi driver kept telling mob members who stopped their car that she was his sister, hiding her Christianity. She left Indonesia without her 6-year-old son and mother whom she has never seen since.
Pangemanan and her husband Harry, who left Indonesia on a tourist visa almost five years before Suharto's resignation, are doing their best to raise their two American-born daughters. Harry has been living in the church since June, just before July 9, the day he was due for deportation.
Harry is now unable to work outside of the church's property. He keeps busy helping coordinate the church's many aid projects including hurricane relief. "I'm in charge of the aid dropped off for Sandy victims, about 50 van loads so far have been sent to help people on the Jersey Shore. We've raised close to $30,000 in donations."
Because he can't leave the church, this will be the first year Harry and Yana will not be in Troy, Ohio, to celebrate Christmas with his sister, a U.S. citizen, and mother, a green card holder, soon eligible to apply for citizenship.
"It's hard because his mother wants to see him," Yana says. "She's in bad health and can't come here. She does dialysis every other day, has diabetes and now pneumonia. Harry wants to be with her."
Harry says he can't risk making the trip to Troy.
"I'm in fear of going back," he says. "It would be very hard for me in Indonesia. The government there knows who I am, of my work with Indonesians here."
He believes he faces five years in jail there for his work with Indonesian refugees in the United States. He adds that his daughters would have a dangerous and difficult life if they went back with him.
"I fear how my children would be received in Indonesia. They're being US citizens puts them in danger, radical Muslims there hate Americans and Christians, they could be targets, even killed." He added, "As a US citizen in Indonesia, they can't go to public schools. They would have to go to private school which I can't afford."
Harry says that as a deportee, he would not be given an official government ID. This would prevent him from getting most jobs and healthcare.
While Harry and the other men live in the church, their families live in nearby cramped apartments. There's now a shower where the men can stay clean. They sleep on mattresses on the floor and are frequently visited by their children and wives.
The Reformed Church's pastor, Seth Kaper-Dale, leads the effort to keep the Indonesians from being deported by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
"We've been offering sanctuary, which for us is the ultimate form of non-violent resistance to the immigration laws. It's time that these people, the fathers should be granted stays of removal," he says.
"It's dragged on for a very long time, without getting the action we need, for the five here in the sanctuary and the others living in risk outside of the church who can be picked up at any time," Kaper-Dale added.
This is true. ICE's Enforcement and Removal Operations unit (ERO) has the power to go into the church, despite its sanctuary, and take the men into custody.
On Friday, ICE released its deportation statistics for its fiscal year 2012. ERO "removed" more than 400,000 people. These show that 55 percent of them were convicted of felonies or misdemeanors-- almost doubling the number in 2008.
"This is nothing to be proud of," said Chicago's Rep. Luis Gutierrez, a longtime proponent of immigration reform. "In the 409,849 deportations are hardened criminals for whom I have no sympathy, but we must also realize that among these hundreds of thousands of deportations are parents and bread-winners and heads of American families that are assets to American communities and have committed no crimes."
The daily web news service that focuses on racism issues, Colorlines.com, has taken a closer look at the 45 percent of deportees who do not have a criminal record. Last week they released data from ICE gained through a Freedom of Information Act request. In the past two years, almost a quarter of a million parents of children born in the United States have been deported, despite their children being US citizens.
In a written statement made to ABC News, ICE spokesman Ross Feinstein says that his agency "Exercises prosecutorial discretion on a base-by-case basis, considering the totality of the circumstances in an individual case."
"Prosecutorial discretion" or "PD" is legalese for ERO's legal power to offer stays of deportation to undocumented immigrants including those who have overstayed their tourist visas seeking sanctuary in the Reformed Church.
Michelle Brané, who heads the Migrant Rights and Justice program at the Women's Refugee Commission in Washington, D.C., is outspoken on ERO's deportation powers.
"There was a time in the U.S. when a judge had the authority to use discretion regarding removal, based on consequences that such a removal would have on a U.S. citizen child," she told ABC News. "That authority really has been limited since 1996 through legislation that really severely limits judges' discretion" in cases like these.
One of Kaper-Dale's priorities has been to get as many PDs as possible for his congregants and those of six other central New Jersey churches. He's had successes and failures.
By working with ERO, the White House and some legislators, the pastor has been able to secure 55 PDs in 2012. These church members' deportation stays allow them time to re-file asylum claims and take whatever other steps are necessary to try to stay in this country.
It's a complex legal fight that has gone on since just after the Sept. 11 attacks. Men, not women, from some primarily Muslim nations including Indonesia, who were not U.S. citizens, had to register in the now defunct National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS).
Kaper-Dale says that not all of the undocumented men in his congregation registered. Many who did were deported. In one night in 2006, ERO agents rounded up almost three dozen such men who were no longer legally in the country. He maintains that NSEERS destroyed families, "Because it targeted only men, it stripped this community of fathers."
Of the eight facing immediate deportation, six are men. All complied with NSEERS, and then immediately filed for asylum. Each case was denied due to federal law. Anyone seeking asylum must file for it within one year of their most recent entry into the United States.
Kaper-Dale wants to know what makes these remaining eight people any different than the 55 granted PDs earlier this year. He says none have any criminal record. All have extremely similar backgrounds to the ones that have stays. They have strong family ties to this country, most have children who are U.S. citizens.
He maintains that Indonesia's Christians remain persecuted in that country. Kaper-Dale cites the State Department's International Religious Freedom Report for 2011. While the Indonesian government officially recognizes Protestantism and Catholicism, and its constitution protects religious freedom, the report states, "The government failed to prevent attacks and combat discrimination against religious groups by nonstate actors. In some case it failed to hold the perpetrators of violence accountable."
His congregants echo these findings, and hear from relatives in their homeland of Christian churches still being burned in various islands and of threats and attacks against their loved ones.
Kaper-Dale says that ERO has deported 15 members of the New Jersey congregations so far this year. He fears what will happen to those living in sanctuary and the other three still at great risk.
"One guy has been a homeless undocumented worker in the land of his birth ever since he was deported and was not given a government ID," he says. "He's been gone four years... stays with friends and relatives."
The deported man's wife and two children remain here.
Mario Rumengang's father, Mariano, was deported in March. Mario came to the United States when he was 7 years old. He's unemployed but has filed under President Obama's Differed Action Program for Childhood Arrivals. He has two daughters, 4 and 5 years old, both born in the United States.
Mario worries about his father's safety, saying, "I believe that he can be hurt. That's the only thing I worry about. He could be driving somewhere. He could be stopped by a gang asked if he's a Christian or a Muslim. They are extremists, they could torture or kill him."
The 28-year-old hopes that any future immigration reform would allow his father to soon return to America, so his family can once again be together.
On Thursday, Kaper-Dale had a conference call with ERO Chief Gary Mead. He says he had expected resolution of the remaining eight cases, which he sees as identical to the 55 others granted stays this year. Kaper-Dale says that Mead refuses to grant them prosecutorial discretion and insists that the eight, despite some being in sanctuary, will be deported back to Indonesia.
Michelle Brané says, "They are in a Catch-22, whatever outcome they have is detrimental to their children. The reality is that these US citizen children can be really harmed by these decisions."
Kaper-Dale has worked closely with several lawmakers in an attempt to get legislation to help the thousands of Christian Indonesians he says live in the United States.
Rep Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., filed HR.3590, "A bill to allow certain Indonesian citizens to file a motion to reopen their asylum claims."
Today, she tells ABC News, "It's more than a shame that another Christmas holiday is passing with this issue unresolved by Immigration and Custom Enforcement officials. These Indonesian Christians, who fled religious persecution at home, are now suffering the indignities of what can only be described as bureaucratic persecution here in America, a nation founded by those seeking religious freedom."
Maloney adds, "For the five Indonesians who have taken sanctuary in a Highland Park, N.J., church -- and the more than 4,000 nationwide who risk deportation -- ICE should exercise its prosecutorial discretion to grant stays of removal, renew those that have expired, and allow Congress time to pass my legislation to reopen the window to apply for permanent asylum."
Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., and Gutierrez were the first to cosponsor the bill. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., filed a version of the bill in the Senate, S.3339 -- "Indonesian Family Refugee Protection Act." These bills remain in committee and are unlikely to be passed this year by a Congress rushing to try to keep the nation from falling off the fiscal cliff.
Late Friday, Kaper-Dale and other church members reached out to the congressmen for immediate assistance with ICE and the White House. Gutierrez' team appealed to their contacts at ICE, asking "to explain to the congressman why these eight are being treated differently from the others granted discretion."
Gutierrez' staff says he plans on working with Maloney and others who have shown leadership on the issue in the immediate days ahead to assist the Indonesians.
Gutierrez' team do not expect to hear back from Immigration until after the holiday. This means a Christmas miracle is unlikely for these eight people slated for deportation.
Kaper-Dale reflects, "In this season we talk about how there's 'no room in the inn'. Well there's no room in this inn we call America for immigrant children or their parents. Until this inn opens its doors further, The Reformed Church of Highland Park will continue to provide sanctuary for the fathers."