METUCHEN – Last Thursday started out as a normal day for Roby Sanger, an Indonesian Christian who has lived and worked in Metuchen for about 20 years.
But after he dropped off his children at school, his world changed.
Sanger was pulled over and arrested by agents of the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement or ICE and taken to the Essex County jail for being in the country illegally.
His arrest and ICE’s targeting last week of two other Indonesian Christian men in Middlesex County has galvanized local elected officials and scores of supporters.
“Roby sits in a detention center alone, but he is not alone,” said Justin A. Karmann, the assistant pastor at the First Presbyterian Church of Metuchen, during a Sunday afternoon prayer vigil for Sanger.
Few would disagree.
An estimated crowd of 500 packed the church to support Sanger and immigrants in general.
The group then marched en masse about six blocks for a rally at Metuchen Borough Hall.
Rep. Frank Pallone, (D-6), said the issue goes far beyond the arrest of one man. He said it has to do with the traditions of the United States, noting that individuals coming to our shores fleeing
persecution at home predates the United States.
“It goes back to the Mayflower,” Pallone said.
Indonesian Christians face a particular immigration problem. Many came to the United States in the 1990’s because of religious persecution.
Indonesia is a majority Muslim nation.
A law passed in 1996 required the Indonesians to seek asylum within a year of arriving. But advocates say that law was not publicized and many were unaware of it.
That had not been a problem as the federal government left most Indonesian Christians alone.
Many, like Sanger, got jobs, got married and are raising children here. Having been born here, the children are American citizens.
One of the other men targeted by ICE had spent countless volunteer hours helping to rebuild homes damaged by Sandy. He sought sanctuary at the Reformed Church of Highland Park.
The government’s lenient attitude regarding immigration changed with the election of President Donald Trump, who made opposing unlimited immigration a key part of his campaign. ICE does not fully explain its actions other than to say all arrests are approved by immigration judges.
There is pending legislation in Congress that would give Indonesian Christians another chance to seek asylum, but that bill has gone nowhere for eight months.
Church leaders urged supporters to contact ICE to voice their displeasure at Sanger’s arrest. They were also asked to contact Gov. Phil Murphy and thank him for his support. Murphy came to Middlesex County when the issue surfaced last Thursday and said the state would do what it could.
Additionally, Gurbir S. Grewal, the state Attorney General, wrote a letter to the Department of Homeland Security, criticizing the targeting of Indonesian Christians.
Still, Karmann, the assistant pastor, said public pressure and opposition is the best course of action for immigration supporters.
There was a lot of that on Sunday.
Undeterred by cloudy skies and drizzle, the marches carried signs reading, “Love, Compassion, Kindness,” and chanted, “Say it loud and clear, immigrants are welcome here.”
State Sen. Bob Smith, (D-17), altered Trump’s campaign slogan to say he wanted to “Make America Kind Again.”
Another speaker, Rep. Bonnie Watson-Coleman, (D-12), emphasized how the United States always has been – and always will be – a nation of immigrants.
Watson-Coleman, who is African-American, noted that her ancestors “were brought here,” while many others came willingly.
Her point was clear. Virtually all people living in the United States originally came from somewhere else.