MANCHESTER, N.H. (Reuters) - Since fleeing deadly violence in Indonesia two decades ago, Meldy and Eva Lumangkun built a life in suburban New Hampshire and raised four children, their illegal status long tolerated by U.S. immigration authorities.
But when they showed up at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Manchester in August for their regular check-in, they were told to buy one-way tickets back to Indonesia and get out of the United States in two months.
“We are afraid to go home. We fear for the safety of our children,” Meldy Lumangkun said after an October meeting with ICE officials in Manchester. “Here our children can live safely.”
The Lumangkuns are among about 2,000 ethnic Chinese Indonesian Christians who fled to New Hampshire to escape rioting in Southeast Asia's biggest economy that killed about 1,000 people in 1998 at the height of Asia's financial crisis.
They are also among tens of thousands of illegal immigrants in the United States now facing possible deportation after the Trump administration moved to reopen cases of people who, like the Lumangkuns, had been given a reprieve under past administrations.
During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump said he would purge the country of millions of illegal immigrants. Since he moved into the White House in January, immigration arrests have tripled since the start of the year to an average of 142 people a day, though actual deportations are down from the rate under Trump’s Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama.
The Lumangkuns and other Indonesian Christians in New Hampshire say they fear religious discrimination or violence if they return to Indonesia.
Resented for their wide control over trade and business, and suspected of loyalty to China, Indonesian-Chinese have often been the target of racial discrimination in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country. In 1998, rampaging mobs targeted Chinese-owned businesses and in some cases killed and raped Chinese-Indonesians, forcing hundreds to flee the country.
Most of the Indonesians now facing deportation entered the United States legally, often on tourist visas, but overstayed them. They then failed to apply for asylum within a year of entering the country, a deadline many were unaware of, according to immigrants, as well as advocates and attorneys. They only later tried to seek legal status, and the ones now facing deportation failed.
Under the terms of a deal negotiated with ICE in 2012 with the help of U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen, the group was allowed to remain in the country if they surrendered their passports and appeared for regular check-ins set on varying schedules by ICE.
Beginning in August, members of the group including the Lumangkuns, were told to prepare to return home, a tougher line that ICE officials said was aligned with an executive order signed by Trump on Jan. 25 overturning many Obama-era immigration policies. Under the new guidelines, while criminals remain the highest priority for deportation, almost anyone in the country illegally is a potential target.
“The executive order that President Trump signed in January changed everything,” said ICE spokesman Shawn Neudauer.
“IT‘S VERY STRESSFUL”
Many of the couples facing deportation have children, said Sandra Pontoh, pastor of the Madbury Maranatha Indonesian Fellowship in Madbury, New Hampshire.
“It’s very stressful,” said Jacklyn Lele, 37, who said she fled to the United States in 2006 after her brother was killed in the 1998 violence.
“My son does not really want to go over there, he keeps saying ‘I‘m American,'” Lele said as the 7-year-old boy restlessly played with a mobile phone.
The group is clustered in New Hampshire’s seacoast region, where they have found work in small factories and raised families, enjoying life in the quiet, bucolic state. Some serve as church pastors.
“They are filling jobs that are important,” Shaheen, a Democrat who has served in the Senate since 2009, said in a phone interview. “Replacing them is not easy.”
The local Foster’s Daily Democrat newspaper condemned the move to deport the New Hampshire group in an August editorial.
“Neighbors who have worked hard and followed the rules shouldn’t be kicked out of the country,” wrote the newspaper’s editorial board, which despite the 144-year-old paper’s name rarely leans liberal. “Neighbors who have committed no crime should not suddenly ‘disappear’ into ICE detention.”
The ethnic Chinese community accounts for less than 5 percent of Indonesia’s population, but has raised its profile in recent years and owns many of the country’s biggest conglomerates.
The governor of Jakarta, a member of the same Chinese-Christian minority in the New Hampshire cases, was jailed for two years in May after being found guilty of blasphemy against Islam. His trial followed mass Islamist-led rallies and sent shockwaves through the secular state whose constitution protects religious freedom and diversity, though 85 percent of its people are Muslim.
Indonesia has not seen a repeat of violence on the scale of the 1998 rioting, though there have been some forced church closures and isolated attacks on places of worship.
Under the 2012 deal with U.S. immigration authorities, some 69 Indonesians living in New Hampshire were allowed to stay. A similar cluster of 45 Indonesian Christians now live in New Jersey under terms of a similar deal independently negotiated and are also facing deportation.
ICE officials said they had no estimate of how many people could be affected, but 41,854 people nationwide without criminal histories are covered by so-called orders of supervision that require illegal immigrants to check-in regularly with authorities as a condition for staying in the country.
The New Hampshire removals have been temporarily halted by a U.S. magistrate judge in Boston, after a lawsuit filed late last month on behalf of 47 of the Indonesian immigrants.
The New Hampshire cases have drawn the support of other Democratic elected leaders, including U.S. Senator Maggie Hassan and Representative Carol Shea-Porter.
Shaheen says she believes the group’s regular check-ins made them easy to target.
“It’s totally inconsistent with American values,” said Shaheen. “This is a country that was born of people that were fleeing religious persecution.”