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Under Obama, They Were Check-ins. Under Trump, They Could Mean Deportation.

For undocumented immigrants, policies put into place by the Trump administration mean more uncertainty and fear

Harry Pangemanan
Credit: Matt Katz / WNYC
Harry Pangemanan, an Indonesian who rebuilt 200 homes in areas affected by Sandy, fears deportation under a new President Donald Trump directive.

Harry Pangemanan was never all that handy. But after Sandy hit, he started cleaning up along the Jersey Shore. He learned from volunteers who came from across the country how to hang drywall and install a bathroom. The 46-year-old father of two would go on to lead the rebuilding of about 200 homes in neighborhoods affected by the storm.

"If community comes together, community helps together, then everything we think is impossible is possible," Pangeman said as he revealed his latest rebuild in Keyport last month. 

Pangemanan, who lives in Highland Park, runs a church nonprofit that does this kind of work. His staff is made up of refugees from Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Kenya, and Burkina Faso, volunteering their time. Some in the group worry they won't be able to continue their work given President Trump's tough immigration policy. But it's Pangemanan himself who is in the crosshairs of the federal government. 

Pangemanan, an immigrant from Indonesia who is in the country illegally, is one of thousands who are required to periodically check in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers. It's a strategy that allows ICE to track those with deportation orders who are not deemed security threats.

In light of new policies put into place by the Trump administration, immigrants are finding that these check-ins are fraught with risk. ICE agents have reportedly been deporting some who show up to their check-in appointments; others are told to return with their passports, ready to board a plane back to their countries of origin.

Pangemanan's story provides insight into the makeshift nature of American immigration policy. He arrived in California nearly 25 years ago and overstayed his visa. With a work permit and no criminal record, Pangemanan held down jobs and paid taxes, drawing little attention from immigration authorities. But following September 11, 2001, Pangemanan got caught up in a quirk of America’s immigration laws: He’s Christian, but Indonesia is a majority Muslim nation. Under a program implemented by then President George W. Bush, individuals from Muslim countries had to register with ICE.

Pangemanan was unable to obtain legal status and he was ordered to leave the country. ICE agents caught him in 2009, cuffing him as his 7-year-old daughter watched.

"I had no heart to hug her and say goodbye so I just looked upon her and waved goodbye," he said.

His pastor at the Reformed Church of Highland Park got involved, pressuring immigration agents to release him. That worked, but he was threatened again with deportation a few years later. Pangemanan avoided ICE by moving into his church for 11 months with a group of other Indonesian Christian men. When Sandy hit, the church became a center of Sandy recovery efforts — and Pangemanan found his calling, according to his pastor, Seth Kaper-Dale.

"He got very passionate about helping people in that situation," Kaper-Dale said.

Pangemanan prepared meals for volunteers, collected mops for clean-up, and sometimes risked deportation by driving to the Jersey Shore to drop off supplies. "I'm not supposed to do it because I could be in trouble if I am stopped by police," he said. "But by the grace of God, I had to do it, people need the goods. And thank God nothing happened."

Due to Kaper-Dale's efforts — including his argument that Pangemanan had done valuable work after Sandy — Pangemanan ultimately won a stay on his deportation order. He returned to his home in Highland Park and took on an official role with the church — minister of disaster relief — and began rebuilding Sandy homes.

Pangemanan was required to go to a check-in appointment with immigration officers every year, but this was a mundane process, like getting a driver's license renewed. 

ICE has more than 1.8 million "aliens," as it calls them, in proceedings for deportation, but just a fraction of the necessary space to house them. This includes those who have been granted stays on their orders of deportation due to medical or other reasons, and any others who are waiting for action to be taken on their orders. They don't have criminal records and are deemed unlikely to abscond, so they return to the community, work and pay taxes. They are simply required to check in with ICE agents, via phone or in person, every six or 12 months. Some are fitted with GPS-enabled ankle monitors.

Trump is working to change that policy and practice. First, he issued an executive order that called for ensuring that those who are "ordered" to be removed from the country "are promptly removed," which is seen as a way of giving ICE agents new discretionary powers to force deportations of those who were considered low priorities under President Barack Obama. 

Second, the order prioritized for deportation those who have "committed acts that constitute a chargeable criminal offense," which could include the very act of entering the United States and staying there despite never actually having been charged with a crime. This would likely apply to all immigrants who check in. 

They are "people who live in communities, who aren’t scary, who don’t have guns, who are just living out their life," said Kaper-Dale, who is running for governor as a Green Party candidate. "And it’s all the people that I love. And it’s all the people that have made New Jersey better. It's people like Harry."

Jose Escobar, a Houston father who has checked-in with immigration agents every year since 2012, was arrested and deported to El Salvador, where he last lived 16 years ago, after showing up to his ICE appointment earlier this month. Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos was detained and deported to Mexico at her annual check-in last month. She lived in the United States for 20 years, but had a criminal conviction for using a fake Social Security number to work.

And just last week, four Indonesian Christians from Pangemanan's church were given 60 days to leave the country when they showed up to ICE appointments, according to Kaper-Dale.  

It is unclear how many immigrants fall into this check-in category. An ICE spokeswoman did not return repeated requests for the figure. But the conservative Washington Examiner reported that the acting ICE director said there are 939,056 people with final orders of deportation who are not detained. Many, if not most would have reporting requirements like check-ins.

While Democrats urged the Trump administration not to allow ICE officers to use check-ins as a means of deportation, Breitbart News, a pro-Trump outlet with deep connections to the White House, has criticized the practice because hundreds have been found to have absconded or been arrested for crimes. 

John Amaya, who served as deputy chief of staff at ICE under President Obama, told WNYC that he believes it is "against the agency’s best interest to be doing this systematically." He said that the immigration system is not intended to be punitive.  

"I don’t think they want to be detaining individuals — bringing them in during the regular check-ins only to detain them and remove them — because then no one’s going to be reporting," Amaya said. "It would be a huge burden, and I think that's why we want to make sure people do report and trust law enforcement."

Otherwise, he warned, immigrants will evade law enforcement. One reason those who violate immigration law are released is the government doesn’t have the resources to catch, process, and deport millions of immigrants. Trump wants to expand detention centers and hire new ICE agents, but that’ll take time. In the meantime one thing he can do has has had an immediate effect.

"I think the rhetoric is instilling fear in the community," Amaya said. "I think the fear is real."

In New Jersey, ICE check-ins take place at the federal office building downtown. Immigrants line up outside a white security tent at the building's entrance; across the street, signs outside a church offer an encouraging message in three languages: "No matter where you are from, we're glad you are our neighbor."

Last week 100 supporters, including U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, rallied behind an ill grandfather from Mexico as he arrived for his check-in at the federal building in Newark. Catalino Geurrero, a delivery man and Uber driver, has been in the country for 25 years but received an order of deportation back to Mexico in 2009; a stay on that deportation was later granted as long as he periodically checked-in with ICE.

Then, Trump was inaugurated. In February, ICE agents told him at his check-in to come back March 10 — with his passport. At the appointment, as his supporters rallied outside, Guerrero was given a 60-day reprieve.

Down the block is a deli, where loved ones of immigrants wait for news.

One woman, who asked to go by the name Mary to protect her identity, waited for her husband. "Before, just go report and they say, 'Come back one year, ok, be careful.' Now we don't know the new rule, but we hope it’s going to be OK for the immigrants," she said. "I'm actually feel stressful, feeling nervous, because we don't know what they're going to answer, what the situation is upstairs. We hope it's not bad. We hope everything is going to be fine." 

Just then, her phone rings. It's her husband. He says everything is OK. He is allowed to stay at least until his next check-in, in 2018. Mary says their four kids will be relieved that Dad is coming home.

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