HIGHLAND PARK, N.J. — When the young pastor started his ministry here at the century-old Reformed Church in 2001, he gave little thought to the separate congregation of Indonesian Christians who shared the sanctuary. They worshiped quietly in their own language on Sunday afternoons, at the end of a hard week’s work in the factories and warehouses of central New Jersey.
But by May 2006, when they began pleading to sleep at the church, the pastor, the Rev. Seth Kaper-Dale, had to pay attention. At the apartment complex where many Indonesians lived, armed federal immigration agents in a single night had rounded up 35 men with expired visas and outstanding deportation orders, as their wives and children cried and other families hid.
Suddenly a prosperous suburban congregation was confronted with the labyrinthine world of immigration law and detention. This year, when one of its own leaders, an Indonesian, was detained for months, only the pastor’s passionate, last-ditch efforts saved him from deportation. And the church reached a new level of activism — with extraordinary results.
Under an unusual compact between the pastor and Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials in Newark, four Indonesians have been released from detention in recent weeks, and 41 others living as fugitives from deportation have turned themselves in under church auspices. Instead of being jailed — as hundreds of thousands of immigrants without criminal records have been in recent years — they have been released on orders of supervision, eligible for work permits while their lawyers consider how their cases might be reopened.
Though agency officials say the arrangement is simply an example of the case-by-case discretion they often use, the outcome has astonished advocates and experts in immigration enforcement, and raised hopes that it signals some broader use of humanitarian release as the Obama administration vows to overhaul the immigration system.
Still, for those who turn themselves in, the leap of faith carries big risks. For now, they can check in at a federal office every three months and, if granted a work permit, can secure a driver’s license. But they are also vulnerable to immediate deportation. Just this fall, nine Indonesian Christians in Seattle who had been on supervised release for years were abruptly detained, and some were deported.
The immigration agency issues about 10,000 orders of supervision annually, but they typically involve people who cannot be deported for practical reasons, like a homeland that will not take them back. The agency detains roughly 380,000 people a year.
“I’m totally on uncharted waters,” Mr. Kaper-Dale, 34, a Vermont native who shares the pulpit with his wife, Stephanie, said in October as he began seeking volunteers willing to place themselves in the government’s hands, from about 200 candidates not only at his church, but at several other New Jersey congregations.
The first ones to step up had to overcome fear born of experience.
“Very, very scary,” said Augus Alex Assa, 46, who fought tears as his 5-year-old daughter, Christia Celine, clung to him in the van from the church, in Middlesex County, to an immigration enforcement unit in Newark. “In my heart, I hope I will stay in the United States.”
Like most of the Indonesians, Mr. Assa and his wife, Grace, came on tourist visas that were suddenly easy for poor people to get in the 1990s, when a booming economy welcomed foreign labor with a wink and a nod. Everything changed after 9/11, when a government directive required the “special registration” of men ages 16 to 65 who had entered the country on temporary visas from a list of predominantly Muslim countries, including Indonesia. If they did not register, it was understood, they would be considered terrorist fugitives.
Most of the Indonesian Christians complied, on the advice of pastors. They hoped that honesty would open a path to legal status rather than deportation to their homeland, where many had faced discrimination and sectarian violence.
Instead, their appeals for asylum were denied in most cases, some through inattention by inept or overburdened lawyers. And those who registered became easy targets when national immigration politics demanded a crackdown.
During the 2006 raid, Mr. Assa hid in a closet when immigration agents came to the door, as his wife covered their daughter’s mouth. For two weeks afterward, they and others slept at the church.
About 50 men were eventually deported, typically after lengthy stays in immigration jails, leaving wives struggling to support American-born children. “We were shocked, but we were kind of paralyzed,” the pastor said.
On Jan. 12, the detention of one of their own spurred the congregation to action. Harry Pangemanan, a popular Bible study leader, was picked up by immigration agents as he left for work as a warehouse supervisor. He and his wife, Mariyana, parents of two American-born daughters, were the only Indonesians among the 300 people in the main congregation.
Church members organized daily visits to the detention center, a 40-minute drive away in Elizabeth, N.J., while the pastor appealed to Congressional and immigration offices. When Mr. Pangemanan reached out with his Bible to fellow detainees, the congregation visited them, too. Appalled to find asylum-seekers behind barbed wire and plexiglass, they began holding vigils outside the center, run for profit by the Corrections Corporation of America.
Some church members resisted. “As a construction worker who is directly affected by immigration, it’s very hard,” said Rich Lord, 39. “I felt like, they’re taking my jobs away.”
But his union and his faith changed his mind, he said: “There’s pregnant women so desperate in Mexico that they’re willing to cross the desert so their child will be born in the United States. And as a Christian, I have to remember that Mary, the mother of Jesus, had to flee their homeland.”
Then, at 5 a.m. on March 31, came bad news: Mr. Pangemanan was being put on a plane to Indonesia. The pastor threw on his clerical collar and ran through Newark Liberty International Airport in a frantic search for the right gate, determined to pray with his friend before he was sent away.
By the time the pastor found the flight, the passengers had already boarded. As he tells the story, he prayed at the gate, so visibly upset that an airline worker let him on the plane.
Mr. Pangemanan was in the last row between two immigration agents — bound not for Jakarta but for a detention center in Tacoma, Wash. — when he saw his pastor coming down the aisle. An astonished agent asked, “How did this guy get in here?”
“And I just put my finger up,” Mr. Pangemanan recalled, pointing heavenward.
The agents let them pray briefly; the pastor said goodbye but vowed to keep trying. Back at the church, he phoned every number on the immigration agency’s Web site.
He still cherishes the recording of the only message that came back, from Dora B. Schriro, who has since left the agency but was then special detention adviser to Janet Napolitano, secretary of homeland security. Within a week of their conversation, Mr. Pangemanan was back in New Jersey with his family, his case under reconsideration by the Board of Immigration Appeals.
When immigration agents arrested several more Indonesian men in late September, church leaders took their effort to a new level, meeting with Scott Weber, director of the detention and removal field office in New Jersey, and agency envoys from Washington.
David J. Venturella, acting director of the agency’s national detention and removal operations, said he approved the discussions. “We encourage all of our field office directors to exercise prosecutorial discretion on a case-by-case basis,” he said. “This is a perfect example.”
Mr. Weber rejected the ministers’ proposal for a church-run alternative to detention, but offered his own: In groups of 5 or 10, twice a week, the church could bring in the Indonesians they vouched for, and lawyers committed to the lengthy process of seeking their full case files.
Unless something was amiss — a hidden criminal conviction, a false address — the former fugitives could walk out the same day. Even before the details were arranged, Mr. Weber released four recent Indonesian detainees, one a Muslim.
Amy Gottlieb, immigrant rights director for the American Friends Service Committee in New Jersey, who has been dealing with the field office since 1996, called it “an amazing moment.”
“One, you just never believe that ICE is going to work with you on anything, given the history,” she said. “And given the intensive arrest efforts for the last two or three years, it’s hard to believe that people are ready to recognize that every single case has a human angle.”
Rex Chen, the supervising lawyer at Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Newark, remains more pessimistic, likening himself to a financial adviser who warns, “This mutual fund could collapse.”
While the arrangement may buy the Indonesians a year or two, he said, unless grounds are found to reopen their cases, or Congress changes immigration law, they could find “they just moved up from not known, to on the list, to you’re taking the steps up to the airplane.”
There are no guarantees, acknowledged Melinda Basaran, another participating lawyer and chairwoman of the New Jersey chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. But many of the Indonesian wives, who did not have to register after 9/11, will soon have been here 10 years without drawing official attention, making them eligible to apply for green cards.
The more pressing question is who is included in the supervised release, said Joan Pinnock, another lawyer involved. Word of mouth has brought calls from Washington State, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, where many Indonesians fled after the New Jersey raid — and where their detention and deportation continues unabated. But Newark immigration authorities have ruled out their return to New Jersey.
“I would love to get this for my Jamaican clients,” Ms. Pinnock said, echoing others who pointed to different groups, like the many Muslims affected by special registration.
On a recent Wednesday night, in a church meeting room hung with the quilts of four generations of grandmothers, fathers restored to their families thanked God and the congregation.
“I’m proud of my church,” Mr. Pangemanan said. “Not just the pastor, the whole church.”