Indonesian’s deportation raises questions of ICE’s legal discretion

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An Aurora man who fled Indonesia two decades ago amid fears he would be persecuted for his Christian faith was deported back there last week, despite outcry from local activists.

Haris Simangunsong was deported from Colorado to his native Jakarta, Indonesia last week, according to the American Friends Service Committee, a local Quaker organization that has advocated for Simangunsong and several other locals facing deportation .

According to AFSC, Simangunsong’s wife and teenage son — the latter of whom is a United States citizen — are still in Aurora hoping to appeal the deportation.

According to the group, Simangunsong came to the U.S. on a tourist visa in 1996, fleeing persecution from Islamic extremists in Indonesia.

A Lutheran who had been active in Chrsitian student movements in his native country, Simangunsong is also a member of a persecuted tribe, the group said. And even after he fled, his family who stayed behind was threatened.

“We fear for Haris’ safety in Indonesia,” said Gabriela Flora, a local leader of AFSC. “Many Christians and Muslim moderates are targeted there and harassment is common.

“Haris is a known Christian leader from a minority tribe and also returning from the United States,” she added. “Those combined factors could lead to much more than harassment.”

According to ICE spokesman Carl Rusnok, a federal immigration judge told Simangunsong to leave the country a decade ago, but he failed to leave even though he had agreed to do so.

A circuit court denied Simangunsong’s appeal a year later and he still did not leave the country, Rusnok said.

“Simangunsong has overstayed his original temporary visitor’s visa by more than 20 years. He has exhausted his petitions through the immigration courts and through ICE,” he said.

Jennifer Piper, with AFSC, said Simangunsong approached federal authorities in 2003 hoping to gain refugee status under a program aimed at granting status to people from Muslim-majority countries following the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.

Federal officials referred Simangunsong to immigration authorities and his request for asylum was eventually rejected, but he was able to stay in the U.S. with his family — including a cancer-stricken son who died in 2016.

That was until last week, Piper said, when federal authorities told him he would no longer be able to stay in the country while he appealed. Quickly — in a matter of less than two days — they deported him from Colorado, first to Singapore and then to Jakarta, she said.

Piper said the case speaks to a marked change under President Donald Trump’s administration compared to the last four years of former President Barack Obama’s administration.

Today, unlike what activists saw during the tail end of the Obama years but similar to the way cases were handled during the former president’s first term, local immigration authorities seem to have less discretion about whether an immigrant will be allowed to stay in the country without proper documentation, Piper said.

The focus isn’t on people who are accused of committing crimes while in the country illegally, she said, but on seemingly anyone without proper documentation.

“What has changed is the Trump administration’s policy,” Piper said. “Now it’s ‘If you are removable, we are going to remove you.’”