BOSTON (CN) – A federal judge voiced sympathy Friday for Indonesian immigrants fighting for asylum after the U.S. government abruptly ordered them out of the country.
“This is a hard case,” U.S. District Judge Patty Saris told the court. “These are good and decent people that stayed here with our blessing. I understand that administrations change and policies change, but all these circuits say that there were changed circumstances in Indonesia.”
Attorneys at Nixon Peabody brought the underlying challenge with the American Civil Liberties Union earlier this year, representing a class of Christian immigrants from the Muslim-majority Indonesia.
For the last seven or eight years, these individuals have been benefiting from a deportation-deferment program operated by the Boston field office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Calling it a “humanitarian effort,” ICE worked with churches across New England to identify law-abiding, productive immigrants from Indonesia who were residing under a final order of removal. Operation Indonesian Surrender allowed these individuals to identify themselves to ICE in exchange for the ability to remain in the United States under an order of supervision.
Limited to individuals with U.S. citizen children or spouses since 2012, the ACLU says the program includes about 70 participants in the Boston area.
Indonesia’s hostility toward religious minorities is well documented, but ICE abandoned its Operation Indonesian Surrender program after the election this year of President Donald Trump.
This past August, when roughly two dozen program participants checked in at the ICE suboffice in Manchester, New Hampshire, the government ordered them to book plane tickets back to Indonesia and return in the next 30 to 45 days.
Pending resolution of the ACLU’s challenge, which it memorialized this month in a second amended class action, those deportations scheduled for October have been put on hold.
Nixon Peabody attorney Ronaldo Rauseo-Ricupero argued Friday that the arrangement that ICE made for Indonesian immigrations created a false atmosphere of comfort that discouraged the immigrants from raising questions about the situation until it was too late.
“Year to year they’re being extended and extended,” Rauseo-Ricupero said at Friday’s hearing. “They don’t have a lot of money and you can see why they’re not rocking the boat.”
This point was countered by Tim Stevens, director for enforcement and removal operations at ICE’s Manchester suboffice.
“We had a lawful removal order and the decision was made,” Stevens testified at Friday’s hearing. “I believe that based on the discretion of the field officers that the removal was going to be at government expense and directed more specifically by us.”
Stevens noted that the policy change ultimately came from the director of the Boston field office, and that each of the Indonesian immigrants facing deportation had a removal order, allowing the government to move on them at will.
The ACLU’s complaint says the government failed to account for changed circumstances in Indonesia that should have allowed its clients’ protection.
“The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom included Indonesia in its 2017 list of countries of particular concern,” the complaint states.
These so-called Tier 2 countries are less repressive than North Korea, but the group “includes Iraq, a nation to which deportations of Christians has been halted by another federal court,” the ACLU notes, citing a June ruling in the Michigan case Hamama v. Adducci.
The ACLU also noted Indonesia’s high rating by the Pew Research Center “in both government restrictions and social hostilities in its 2017 report on global religious restrictions.”