Last month, I was invited to speak at a celebration hosted by the Indonesian community as part of a Day of Action for Immigrant Justice. I was glad for an opportunity to express gratitude and admiration for all that had come to life as we worked together over the past several years in pursuit of liberation, dignity, and well-being for all of our community members. I thanked our Indonesian friends for being our teachers and guides.
The Day of Action–hosted by the NH Immigrant Solidarity Network, the NH Council of Churches, Never Again Action, and AFSC–welcomed more than 100 faith leaders, allies, and immigrant community members for an interfaith prayer vigil and Jericho Walk, a car rally at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) local detention center, and a wonderful Indonesian meal with musical performances.
It has been three and a half years since the Rev. Sandra Pontoh (Director of NH Indonesian Community Support) reached out to faith leaders, including AFSC, to ask that we accompany several Indonesian families for their check-in appointments with ICE. In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, immigrant families across the country were holding their breath, awaiting the increased aggression in immigration enforcement and deportations. It was terrifying.
At that time, 2.3 million people across the country were being supervised by ICE with required check-in appointments (see PRI story here). Given the Trump administration’s promises to remove as many undocumented people as possible from the United States, it became much more likely that immigrants’ check-ins with ICE would lead to detention, to deportation, to separation from loved ones, to being returned to a country that was not safe for them or their families.
Our Indonesian neighbors in the seacoast of New Hampshire had been here for 20 years. Their home was here, their children were here, their churches, jobs, schools, and friends were here.
On one April morning in 2017, seven ally faith leaders including me, gathered with Pastor Sandra and a few Indonesian families in the waiting room at the ICE office, praying quietly, singing, and playing with the young children. There were other families there as well, from El Salvador, from Sudan, from Brazil. One by one, as names were called and the ICE officer spoke to each person, they were told to “return in 30 days.” We saw on their faces a mixture of relief and dismay. Instead of returning in six months, or even a year, they would have to go through this again in one month, with more stress, more time off work, more missed days of school for the children.
For those of us who were there in support, this was the first time we had seen this process up close. It was chilling and heartbreaking. We felt helpless to change what was playing out right in front of us. We were bonded to our community members in that moment, and we knew that we wanted to do whatever they needed us to do.
At their invitation, we returned to the ICE office a few days later with another group of families who had appointments. And we returned again, every time, whenever they asked.
After a few weeks, ICE decided that they didn’t want witnesses to their activities, so they blocked us from entering the office. We waited outside, praying together until everyone had come out, and we also began reaching out to everyone else who was lined up to go inside. It was an extraordinary opportunity to connect with immigrants who had been feeling isolated and scared, who did not know that there were pastors and others who cared what happened to them. ICE had inadvertently pushed us to a place where we could connect with more people and speak with them more freely than we could in the office waiting area.
Since we were restricted to remaining outside of the ICE office building, we organized an interfaith prayer vigil and Jericho Walk in front of the building, and on June 6, 2017, 300 people gathered for our first one. We returned again and again, sometimes five or six times a month over the next three years. In that way, we built relationships with each other, and we made connections with those who were experiencing the violence of immigration enforcement in our communities. As the weeks and months passed, we grew in our resolve to bear witness and to demand an end to this violence. We couldn’t see the road ahead, but we knew we had found our path and that we would keep going.
When, in August of 2017, our Indonesian neighbors were told to purchase plane tickets for their deportation, and that they had 30 days to leave the country, we turned to our faith communities to prepare to be sanctuary. We leveraged media coverage and congressional action and we mobilized pro bono attorneys. And we continued to pray, sing, walk, and organize.
In September 2017, we received news that seemed like a miracle. The U.S. District Court halted their deportations (asserting that ICE was acting with unnecessary speed and carelessness), and ensured that these individuals would be able to request that their cases be reopened. Pro bono attorneys stepped forward to prepare these motions to reopen, and one by one they were granted. These Indonesian community members prepared new asylum requests, several of which have been granted in recent months.
It was a moment that allowed us to rejoice together. We all breathed easier, knowing that the immediate crisis had passed for our friends.
We also realized that many others were not so lucky, that there were still too many people in our community at risk of deportation, in need of solidarity and support. And so we continued to show up for them, and we do so even today.
Our Indonesian neighbors have been our teachers, and they continue to be our guides. They taught us about the chaos and fear and harm that was being caused in our communities, which we hadn’t had an opportunity to see up close. They taught us about faithfulness and miracles and dignity. And they’ve taught us what it means to follow, to accompany, to show up in ways that center their rightful leadership and decisions.
Inspired by their struggle and their strength, so much has been built in New Hampshire – the human infrastructure for sanctuary, for bond funds, for post-detention support, for persistent advocacy to our members of Congress that they stop writing checks for the agencies which terrorize our communities.
With all that has been built over the past few years, we are abundant in capacity, wisdom, spirit, and creativity. We press on, bringing our demands to Congress - for humane immigration policy that includes a path to citizenship for all, an end to immigrant detention and deportation, and protections for the rights and well-being of all who seek to make a home here. Regardless of the outcome of the election in November, we know will continue to have an enormous amount of work to do--and we will keep working together to build the world that we all deserve.