Reports of ethnic profiling underscore immigration issues here.
Asylum is the only option for Indonesian Chinese Christians who overstayed their visas but want to legalize their status. They’re not considered refugees because they come into the country directly from Indonesia, says Mulligan. “Generally speaking, for any person or group of persons to come to us as refugees they have to be living outside their home country and finding that they can’t return because they would be persecuted there,” he says.
Returning home is not an appealing move for Chinese Christians who have always faced discrimination in Indonesia. In May 1998, in the midst of protests against then-President Suharto, rioters lashed out against minorities. “There was looting, burning Chinese people’s stores, burning churches, attacking Chinese and Christians,” says the pastor. “They say ‘you Chinese, you go back to your country.’” There were also reports of mass rapes of Chinese women.
“I am hopeful that I will be able to stay in the United States,” Ricky continues. “When I ask my kids if they want to go, they say they want to stay because this is home.”
He says if he is deported, his wife and two children will stay behind in Philadelphia so they can continue their education.
Though Ricky remains optimistic he will be allowed to stay, recent history indicates that the outlook is grim.
Neither the Third Circuit Court nor the Department of Justice keeps records on asylum claims by nationality. However, Judi Bernstein-Baker, executive director of HIAS and Council Migration Service, estimates that about 200 asylum cases have reached the Third Circuit in the past decade, and she has only heard of two that were successful. Those figures do not include cases that were heard in lower immigration courts and not appealed.
Successful claims are rare thanks to a 2005 ruling by the federal Third Circuit Court of Appeals at Sixth and Market. In the asylum case Lie vs. Ashcroft , the court ruled that “the evidence in the record does not establish that there is a pattern or practice of persecution of Chinese Christians in Indonesia,” which set a precedent for future claims. “The door for asylums in this area has been virtually closed,” says Mulligan.
Jack Herzig is an immigration lawyer who has helped Indonesians with asylum claims for the last decade. He says the creation of the Department of Homeland Security following the 9/11 attacks directed extensive manpower and dollars toward finding and deporting illegal immigrants. “For the first time in American history we’ve been in a situation where people who are simply visa overstays are considered a threat,” Herzig says.
“The Chinese Indonesians came at the wrong time in American immigration history.”
One family has been fighting removal for seven years now. The couple came to Philadelphia in 1998 on tourist visas after the husband was pulled from his motorcycle and beaten up by an anti-Chinese mob.
“When we came, we did not have information,” the husband says. “We did not know how to apply or anything.”
He applied for asylum in 2003 after registering as an undocumented immigrant in compliance with the USA Patriot Act. “We’re been fighting the case the whole time,” he says, “but it’s close to the end.”
The claim has been denied, and deportation is scheduled for June 23.
They were basing their asylum claim on the welfare of their two children, who were born here, are American citizens, and do not speak Indonesian.
Most of all, they are worried about their security. “I believe it is still unsafe,” the husband says.
Other community members say they will continue to stay and work, and hope that the federal government passes reform that will allow them to stay legally.
“The irony is while we are fighting terrorism we are sending back to the largest Muslim country in the world a Chinese Christian community,” Herzig says. The son of Holocaust survivors, he sees shades of Eastern European Jews in the Chinese Indonesians.
“They are considered strangers in their own land though they have lived there for centuries,” Herzig says. “They have endured pogroms; they can be attacked with impunity—and they fear an even greater wave of violence yet to come.”
*Due to the sensitive nature of immigration issues and ongoing asylum cases, the names and identities of Indonesians interviewed for this article have been changed or concealed.