Reports of ethnic profiling underscore immigration issues here.
This Saturday, Philadelphia is celebrating World Refugee Day, honoring the struggles of those who have come to the city fleeing warfare and political, religious or racial persecution in their home countries. But for one immigrant community, there will be no celebration. Instead of reveling in freedom and liberty, Indonesian Chinese Christians residing in South Philly will spend the day in typical “illegal alien” fashion—hiding, in fear of being captured and deported.
During the late ’90s, thousands of Indonesian Chinese Christians arrived in Philadelphia seeking escape from rampant ethnic and religious violence in their predominantly Muslim homeland. Many of them came to the city on temporary tourist visas that have long since expired. Many of them remain undocumented and face deportation if discovered. Now, Indonesians say that a wave of harassment, arrest and deportations have created a perception within the community that immigration officials are singling them out. Residents say they are afraid to answer their doors, reluctant to speak to outsiders or to even go to work.
On what started as a normal day in May of last year, “Ricky” left his South Philadelphia apartment and got into a van already filled with five or six other Indonesians, on their way to work at a cleaning service. But they never made it to work that day. The van was pulled over by a police officer, who accused the driver of running a stop sign. Ricky claims the officer peered into the vehicle and asked the driver and all passengers for identification.
When they failed to produce the proper paperwork, Ricky recounts the officer saying, “You’ve got a big problem here.”
ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) officials were on the scene within minutes, Ricky says. He and the other passengers were handcuffed and taken to a Scranton jail, where Ricky stayed for two months.
Christian Chinese say stories like Ricky’s are rampant and make the community wary of the police. Many Indonesians believe that immigration officials are working with police to single them out. “When you get pulled over by cops, if they think you’re undocumented, they can apprehend you,” says “David,” another immigrant from Indonesia. “They see your complexion—dark skin—broken English. They can detain and interrogate you in the police station.”
Wary of informants, most Indonesians do not reveal whether they are here legally, even to each other, says “Brian,” who has lived in Philadelphia for 10 years.
“We don’t ask each other, ‘How is the status?’” he says. “We’re protecting ourselves.”
“They get picked up in front of their house, or in front of their workplace. Some people work in restaurant, some people work in dry cleaning, they came to their workplace,” the pastor of an Indonesian South Philly church says. “Why does ICE know this person’s new address or know where they work?” he asks.
Dennis Mulligan, executive director of Nationalities Service Center, a nonprofit that provides services to immigrants, says cooperation between local and federal officials on immigration matters has been on the rise in recent years. The Indonesian Consulate in New York estimates that there are fewer than 4,000 Indonesians remaining in Philadelphia, down from a high of about 10,000 earlier in the decade. Ricky’s version of the story, if accurate, suggests that ICE could be working with Philadelphia police to identify and stop suspected undocumented immigrants.
The community’s fear is further escalated by the ongoing wave of backlash against illegal immigrants across the country: An Arizona law scheduled to be implemented July 29 allows police officers to question people that they have a “reasonable suspicion” of being undocumented. A similar bill is under consideration in Pennsylvania. Where the Arizona law goes beyond mere cooperation is in giving local police detention powers traditionally reserved for the federal government.
“The idea behind that is the local cop has the authority to ask someone’s status and take action,” Mulligan says. The difference in Ricky’s story is that the police did not make the arrests themselves, but instead called in ICE. “To the guys in the car, the distinction might be purely theoretical,” says Mulligan.
Philadelphia ICE Spokesman Mark Medvesky says that Homeland Security does not target any particular community or ethnic group. “We look for people who are a threat to our community and our security regardless of what ethnic group or country they may come from,” says Medvesky.
ICE investigates job sites suspected of hiring illegal labor, and works with local law enforcement to check the backgrounds of foreign-born suspects detained by the police. “If we do an operation and find people it’s because we expect to find them,” he says.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement does not keep local statistics on deportation by country.
In November of last year, Mayor Nutter issued an executive order prohibiting law-enforcement officials from questioning an immigrant’s status “unless the status itself is a necessary predicate of a crime the officer is investigating.” Furthermore, police cannot question status for the purpose of enforcing immigration laws.
Despite the order, Ricky claims his ride did stop at the sign that morning in South Philly. “The police were just looking for a reason to stop the van,” he claims. He believes that either the police or immigration officials had been tailing them for a week previously.
While waiting in the Scranton prison, Ricky says officials told him that he needed to apply for asylum—which he did—or else be deported. “They said that’s the only way out,” Ricky says through a translator. His claim is still pending.