While United States immigration policy is the continuing focus of national debate and controversy, a dramatic ongoing situation in New Jersey is continuing to unfold. It involves a passionate priest who has used his church to give sanctuary to Southeast Asian immigrants facing deportation back to their potentially dangerous homeland, pitting against one another national civil rights advocates, federal judges, a president who has taken a hard-line stance against undocumented people and the agency challenged with enforcing American immigration law.
On Saturday, a central New Jersey pastor led a special prayer service with his congregants, many of whom are undocumented Christian Indonesian immigrants, giving thanks for what they saw as a potentially life-changing court order. The order by a federal judge in New Jersey last Friday prevents their deportation back to Indonesia, where they fear religious persecution, violence, arrest and possible death. The orders are in response to co-filings by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other attorneys.
The ruling capped eight days of fear and uncertainty following the arrests by ICE agents of church members on Thursday, Jan. 25. The two men detained, Roby Sanger and Gunawein Liem, remain at the Essex County Jail, which is used by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) as a detention center for people arrested for immigration law violations. ICE also unsuccessfully tried to arrest a third local Indonesian Christian that day.
ICE confirmed the detention of the two men in a statement to ABC News.
“During a targeted enforcement operation last Thursday, ICE arrested two foreign nationals in Franklin Park, NJ and Metuchen, NJ. These individuals have an order of removal from the United States issued by an immigration judge and upheld by the Board of Immigration appeals,” the statement reads.
ICE added that its actions were legal and a necessary part of their duty to enforce the nation’s immigration law. One of the men was arrested while dropping off his child at a local high school, while the other was detained after dropping his child at a school bus stop.
The night of the arrests, three men and five family members, including some American-born children, were staying at the church as protection against ICE. Although the American-born children cannot be deported, the removal of a parent would break up their families.
After last Friday night’s judicial order protecting them as part of a new legal “class” that gives them temporary protection, the eight left the safekeeping of the church’s property.
During the special Saturday service at the Reformed Church of Highland Park, senior co-Pastor Seth Kaper-Dale prayed with his churchgoers. The women led as they sang “How Great Thou Art” in Indonesian and English. Their verses of the African-American spiritual “Go Down Moses” were requested by the Indonesians to symbolize their captivity and need of being saved.
Harry Pangemanan sat and sang along from the second pew with his wife, Yana Sunarto, and two daughters, joining in.
On Jan. 25, ICE attempted to arrest Pangemanan, who, along with his wife, was featured five years ago in ABC News' coverage of the Indonesian immigrants who had sought sanctuary at the Reformed Church rather than face imminent deportation to Indonesia, the world’s most populous predominantly Muslim nation.
Then, Sunarto described to ABC News the hell she said her homeland had become when she fled it for America on May 13, 1998.
“It was a bad situation because racism against Chinese Indonesians was horrible,” she said. "They were killing people in the street, burning cars."
At the time of the ABC News report, her husband had spent nine months at the church living in sanctuary, leaving in November 2013 only after an agreement had been reached with ICE that allowed them temporarily to stay in the United States under certain conditions, which included frequent mandatory report dates with the agency.
While ICE was successful in apprehending Sanger and Liem, Pangemanan narrowly avoided arrest.
“Thursday morning, around 7:35 in the morning, I was in my car in the driveway with my daughter to take her to high school," Pangemanan told ABC News. "When I was at the sidewalk, I noticed a car I had seen the day before, with tinted windows. This was unusual; I drove back to the house, ran inside, locked the doors."
He told his daughter to walk to school on her own, then called his pastor.
"I asked him to come to my house and try to go to the suspicious car," he said. "When he got to them, the car drove away. He went looking for the car elsewhere to talk to them. After finding it, the car drove off again.
"Pastor Seth called me and told me that it was time to go to the church to be safe," he continued. "He came right away and I left the house and he drove me to the church.”
It was the second time in six years that Pangemanan had sought sanctuary at the Reformed Church of Highland Park.
Kaper-Dale, a one-time Green Party candidate for New Jersey governor, is an advocate for Christian Indonesians throughout the United States.
Once Pangemanan was safe in the sanctuary, he went to check out Pangemanan’s Highland Park home. Upon arrival, Kaper-Dale said he saw two ICE agents outside of the home.
He started a Facebook Live feed apparently showing the agents knocking repeatedly on the Pangemanan family’s door, describing what he saw going on.
The recent ICE crackdown comes after five years of most of the Indonesians fulfilling their reporting requirements usually without incident.
Kaper-Dale said he attributes the new crackdown to President Donald Trump and his mission to tighten immigration policy.
"No one of any religion should be deported to a country where they can be harmed because of their beliefs," Kaper-Dale said.
In a telephone interview with ABC News, Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU’s national Immigrant Rights Project, said that there's been a sudden national change in ICE’s enforcement operations where, “across the country, the Trump administration seeks to remove individuals who have been in the United States peacefully for long periods of time, obeyed laws, contributed to their communities, raised families with American-born children and now without due process are being deported to countries where they face imminent danger and possible death.”
Gelernt added that ACLU isn’t challenging the government’s right to deport people who have broken immigration laws, but rather that people are being rounded up and deported without an opportunity for attorneys to help them reopen their cases.
Pangemanan said last Friday’s stay of his deportation has dramatically shifted his emotional state, particularly after Trump’s State of the Union speech last week.
“I only watched a few minutes [of the speech]," he said. "Nothing, I saw made me happy or gave me some kind of hope."
The judicial order has changed that. "I feel much relief, but my daughters are even more relieved than me and my wife," he said. "They know that the judge has ordered that I can’t be deported until her next ruling."
Pangemanan added, “My hope is that the judge can see the reality of our American life, especially our children who worry every day that their parents will be sent away from them.”