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Indonesian immigrants learn about rights; community learns about Indonesian immigrants

Indonesian immigrants learn about rights; community learns about Indonesian immigrants

Published: August 26, 2011
Sandra Pontoh

The Rev. Sandra Pontoh offers an invocation before a "community conversation" at the Union Church in Madbury, New Hampshire.

Photo: AFSC / Arnie Alpert

MADBURY, NEW HAMPSHIRE --- A celebration of Indonesian Independence Day at the Madbury Town Hall on August 13 included an opportunity for members of the region’s Indonesian community to learn about their rights and also enabled members of the wider community to learn how it came to pass that the Dover, New Hampshire area became home to more than a thousand Indonesian immigrants.  

According to Hans Risakotta, a resident of Somersworth, persecution of Indonesia’s Christian and Chinese minorities intensified in the late 1990s.  Thousands of members of those communities fled to the USA with tourist visas, and only months or years later learned how they might apply for asylum status.

“Persecution and abuse are common,” said Rev. Michael Lapian of Dover, who said the leader of the seminary he attended was murdered.  

[You can click here to see photos from this event on our Flickr page.]

The Dover area now is home to more than 1200 Indonesian Christians, members of 15 churches that make up the Fellowship of Indonesian Churches in New Hampshire.  There are also Indonesian Muslims living nearby.  

Since their arrival, many members of this community have been denied asylum status and have been subject to deportation orders.  Nearly a hundred have entered into “Orders of Supervision” with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the federal agency that enforces immigration law.  Under this program, Indonesians report to ICE on a regular basis and are entitled to seek lawful employment until their cases are resolved.   Others risk being sent back to their homeland, where according to a recent report from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, members of Indonesia’s religious minorities continue to face discrimination and violence.

While most of the Indonesians played ping pong, listened to music, and sampled ethnic food, several leaders joined a “community conversation,” facilitated by Arnie Alpert of the American Friends Service Committee, with a couple dozen other residents of the Dover area, including clergy, public officials, teachers, and representatives from service agencies.    Rev. Lapian, Rev. Ronald Politton, and Rev. Andi Sipayung shared a bit of their own stories about leaving Indonesia and settling in the Dover area.  Rev. Sandra Pontoh, the primary organizer of the meeting, said local police sometimes ask people to “show their papers,” even when immigration status has no bearing on a matter in question.  

The discussion at the Union Church included short presentations from Eva Castillo of the NH Alliance for Immigrants and Refugees and from the AFSC’s Maggie Fogarty about national and state political matters that affect the security of immigrants.   Fogarty described several anti-immigrant bills which were defeated in the legislature this year, but said more are expected in 2012.

The NH Conference of the UCC passed a resolution on solidarity with immigrants at its most recent annual meeting.  Rev. Dr. Mary Westfall, who chairs the Conference’s Commission on Witness and Action, spoke of the biblical commitment to welcome the stranger and the immigrant, and of the growing commitment within the UCC churches of New Hampshire to create stronger ties with the immigrant community.  "We are brothers and sisters in faith," she noted, "and together with other churches we all have much to offer each other as we find meaningful ways to work together." 

Later, across the street in the Madbury Town Hall, more than 75 Indonesians listened closely as Castillo advised them about what to do if ICE agents come to their homes.  “Don’t open the door,” she said.  She also informed them that they can protect their legal rights by telling ICE agents they will only speak with an attorney present.  

Judy Elliott of the NH Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health explained that most rights held by workers who are citizens also pertain to immigrants, regardless of their legal status.   She stressed that workers who are injured on the job are entitled to have their medical care paid by their employers, and may be able to get compensated as well for lost work time.  In addition, she said the NH Department of Labor can be relied on to help them collect unpaid wages, a circumstance faced too often by immigrant workers.

Bill Hahn, an immigration lawyer from Boston who has handled many cases for Indonesian immigrants, spent an hour answering sometimes detailed questions about legal matters.  

The program was sponsored by the Maranatha Indonesian UCC Church of Madbury, the Fellowship of Indonesian Churches of New Hampshire, and the New Hampshire Conference of the United Church of Christ, with organizing support from the AFSC.