Attorney Christina Powers explains immigration court proceedings. Sean Heisey, Daily Record
Early Monday morning, Ellyana Sukwanputra was guided into Courtroom No. 2, a small, windowless room with cinder block walls off of a sally port in the immigration detention section of York County Prison.
A tall, thin woman, she wore Day-Glo orange prison scrubs, the attire denoting her status as a prisoner in a country in which she has resided for a little more than 20 years.
Her husband Yulius appeared at the hearing on a television screen as he is being held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in its detention center at the Pike County Prison in northeastern Pennsylvania, about a three-hour drive from the prison housing his wife.
In 1999, Ellyana and Yulius fled their home in Indonesia to come to the United States, escaping the persecution and violence they faced as Christians in a majority Muslim country.
They settled in Philadelphia. Ellyana, who holds a degree in engineering, went to work at a deli. Her husband, similarly educated, found a job in a doughnut shop. They had a family, two daughters. They bought a house. They lived exemplary lives, their lawyer said. They had never run afoul of the law.
Yet, since July 2, they have been locked up, pending deportation back to Indonesia.
The courtroom was packed with family and friends, mostly members of their church. Their eldest daughter, now 19 and a sophomore in college, was there. The youngest, 15, wasn’t permitted to attend, as minor children are not allowed in the courtroom. Both of their daughters, born in the United States, are American citizens.
Immigration Judge Kuyomars Golparvar sat at the bench and paged through the voluminous file that traced the history of the Sukwanputras’ life since leaving Indonesia.
The occasion was a bond hearing to determine whether the couple could leave lockup while awaiting the ultimate resolution of their case, a case that has been 18 years in the making.
As the court came to order, Ellyana turned and looked at her daughter, like her mother, a tall striking young woman, and smiled.
The proceeding began.
A complicated process ends in jail time
The Sukwanputras’ case, as many others winding their way through the immigration courts, is once again an illustration of the complicated nature of that process.
The Sukwanputras arrived in the United States on May 17, 1999, legally, on visitor’s visas. They stayed beyond the limits of their visas and were placed in what the government calls “removal proceedings” – deportation – on June 25, 2001.
That was after they had applied for asylum. Their May 4, 2001, applications for asylum, cited persecution and threats of violence against Chinese Christians in Indonesia.
The immigration judge in the case, Donald Ferlise, rejected their applications. An appeal to the Board of Immigration Appeals – as it almost always does – upheld Ferlise’s ruling, despite some serious concerns being raised about Ferlise’s conduct during the hearing.
The Third Circuit Court of Appeals, in 2006, overturned the appeal and sent the case back to immigration court to be reheard.
During all of the appeals and hearings and check-ins with immigration officials, the Sukwanputras cooperated and showed up for all hearings and appointments. Still, in 2010, the immigration judge again rejected their appeal for asylum and ordered them deported.
On July 2 of this year, they were picked up by ICE agents and sent to jail.
Facing ‘ethnic cleansing’
Ellyana and Yulius are Catholics of Chinese descent. In Indonesia, Christians are a minority, and Indonesians of Chinese heritage were often victims of persecution and violence.
Ellyana grew up in Malang, a city of nearly 900,000 nestled among the mountains of central East Java. When she was a child, she reported in her asylum application, a mob of native Indonesians burned down her father’s store, an act that was among widespread attacks on Chinese-owned businesses. She recalled hearing members of the mob shout, “Burn it down. This belongs to Chinese.” The police and the army did nothing to stop the attacks.
In September 1997, she and Yulius traveled to Yulius’ hometown, Unjung Pandang, a port city on the eastern shore of the Island of Sulawesi, so she could meet his parents before they wed. During their visit, she testified previously, a mob burned down the restaurant owned by her husband’s family. She recalled hearing rioters yell, “Burn and kill the Chinese!” She and her husband sought refuge in the local police station, staying there for two days until the rioting ceased.
After graduating from college, Ellyana moved to Jakarta, the capital city of Indonesia, to seek work. In May 1998, riots sparked by mass unemployment and food shortages broke out, and since native Indonesians blamed the Chinese for their economic plight, those of Chinese descent were targeted for violence. Thousands perished. More than 168 rapes were reported. Ellyana’s attorney, Chris Casazza, an immigration lawyer from Philadelphia, described it as “ethnic cleansing.”
Ellyana hid in a friend’s home. She recalled hearing the shouts of the rioters in the streets and their incessant banging on the house.
Her younger daughter, Cherilynn, said her mother told her that she used to sleep with a knife nearby.
She returned to Malang and soon after, along with her husband, fled to the United States, where they believed they could be safe.
‘An extravagant display of ignorance’
Their 2002 hearing after applying for asylum did not go well, and the fault for that, according to the justices of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, lies with the judge, Donald Ferlise.
Ferlise, according to the appellate court, refused to accept documentation that would confirm Ellyana’s assertion that she faced persecution and possibly violence if she were returned to Indonesia.
The most damning, and disturbing, passage in the appellate court’s ruling described Ferlise’s conduct during the hearing. During Ellyana’s testimony, after she described her desire for her sister to be able to come to the United States to further her education and get a better job, the judge interrupted and said, “Look for a better job. Ma’am she has no right to be here. All of the applicants that are applying for asylum have no right to be here. You don’t come to the United States to look for a job. That’s not the purpose of asylum.”
He continued, “Now, if you’re telling your sister to come to the United States to pretend to be a student to have her come here, you’re guilty of visa fraud. That is a felony. You can go to jail for that! You have to understand that the whole world does not revolve around you and other Indonesians that just want to live here because they enjoy the United States better than they enjoy living in Indonesia. It is not a world that revolves around you and your ethnic group.”
The circuit court, in its ruling overturning the case and sending it back to ICE for reconsideration, wrote, “We are deeply troubled by (Ferlise’s) remarks, none of which had any basis in the facts introduced, or the arguments made, at the hearing. There was no evidence adduced at the hearing that (Ellyana) was seeking asylum only because she enjoyed the quality of life here better than that in Indonesia, nor was there any basis for (his) remarks that (Ellyana) might be guilty of visa fraud.
“In particular, (Ferlise’s) statement that the ‘whole world does not revolve around you and the other Indonesians that just want to live here because they enjoy the United States’ gives the appearance that (Ferlise) has a predisposition to find against (Ellyana).”
It wasn’t the first time the federal courts took note of Ferlise’s handling of a case. In one case, involving a woman who fled Togo to escape the prospect of a forced marriage and genital mutilation, Ferlise’s conduct of the case was described as “an extravagant display of ignorance.” In another case involving a refugee from West Africa, Ferlise repeatedly interrupted the man’s testimony and cast aspersions of his credibility.
A judge for the Third Circuit described it as “bullying” and said it was “crystal clear that Judge Ferlise presumed (the) application to be without merit before even a shred of testimony had been presented, and treated (the man) accordingly. Ferlise’s ruling, the judge concluded was a “severe wound” on the American system of justice.
The judge who wrote that was Maryanne Trump Barry, the older sister of the current president.
Ferlise was removed from the bench in May 2006.
Indonesia ‘failed to prevent abuse’
Their case for asylum, according to their lawyer, became complicated after the State Department, in 2010, issued a report that, while critical of Indonesia’s commitment to ending religious discrimination, disputed that Christians were an oppressed group.
The report noted that the Indonesian constitution provides for religious freedom and that the government had prosecuted and prevented acts of violence against minority religious groups. But, it concluded, “it failed to prevent abuse and discrimination against religious groups by other private actors and at times failed to punish perpetrators of violence. Some hardline Muslim groups opposed to religious pluralism engaged in violent activity against free religious expression, and various other activities deemed contradictory to their view of Islamic values. Members of minority religious groups continued to experience some official discrimination in the form of administrative difficulties, often in the context of civil registration of marriages and births, and/or the issuance of identity cards.”
A group called Open Door, which advocates for religious freedom around the world, lists Indonesia as No. 30 on its list of nations hostile to religious freedom.
Its report on Indonesia reads, “Believers from Muslim backgrounds often face persecution from their families and communities and are put under pressure to renounce their faith. Churches are hard to build; even if congregations manage to fulfil all the legal requirements, local authorities can still deny them permission. Children of Christians often face verbal abuse; they are called infidels and are sometimes made to sit at the back in class.”
The report concluded, “While believers in Indonesia don’t usually face violent persecution, in 2018, 18 Christians were killed and many more wounded in a coordinated suicide bomb attack on three churches in the city of Surabaya.”
Their claim for asylum may be moot, though. When their eldest daughter turns 21 in little more than a year, she could sponsor her parents for citizenship, their lawyer said.
‘We just want to be here’
The bond hearing lasted less than half an hour. Casazza, the Sukwanputras’ lawyer, told the judge that his clients had been employed long term and owned a house, that they had never run afoul of the law and that their daughters, American citizens, were outstanding students – the eldest, Jacquelyn, studying information technology at Swarthmore College on a full academic scholarship, and the youngest, Cherilynn, a straight-A student at one of Philadelphia’s best and most challenging high schools. Cherilynn, who has been living with an uncle while her parents were in prison, said she hoped to attend medical school and become a pediatrician.
The ICE attorney did not object or put up any argument against releasing the couple on bond.
The judge set bond at $2,500 each, described by the attorney as extremely low.
As she left the courtroom, Ellyanna wiped tears from her eyes and said to those gathered, “Thank you. Thank you so much for coming.”
She was released about four hours later. Her husband was released after he arranged for a friend to drive to Pike County from Philadelphia to pick him up.
After Ellyanna’s release, Philadelphia City Councilwoman Helen Gym, whose daughter is a classmate of the Sukwanputras’ younger daughter, described the couple’s incarceration as “senseless.”
“I am outraged by a system that separates parents from their children with no regard for their health and safety,” she said. “And I am frustrated with a nation that seems to have little interest in providing a path to citizenship for a family which is the very model of the ideals of this nation.”
Cherilynn, outside the prison after the hearing, said, “My parents are good people. We just want to be here.”
As she spoke, she clutched a copy of Ellie Wiesel’s “Night,” which documented his experiences in Auschwitz and Buchenwald, a memoir of another time when religious and ethnic hatred turned into horror and violence.
She was reading it for school.
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