Christians Seeking Refuge May Get Caught Up In Trump's Deportations

Jul 7, 2017
Originally published on July 7, 2017 8:06 am
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Here's a conflict for President Trump. On the one hand he's pledged to support Christians around the world who suffer for their beliefs. But the president has also said he intends to deport people who are in the U.S. illegally. And some of the immigrants now facing deportation are Christians who were persecuted in their homelands and could be in danger if they're sent back. Here's NPR's Tom Gjelten.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: President Obama was often criticized for not showing enough concern for the condition of Christians in Muslim-majority countries. President Trump came into office promising to do better, such as when he proposed preferential treatment for Christian refugees. Vice President Pence reiterated Trump's views in May, speaking at the World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians.

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VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: President Trump rightly said not long ago that of the Christian church, quote, "nobody has been treated worse in the Middle East." He's made it clear that America will stand by followers of Christ.

GJELTEN: Unless, perhaps, those followers of Christ immigrated to the United States without the proper visa or otherwise broke some law. Five days after taking office, Trump issued an executive order calling for the faithful execution of immigration laws against all removable aliens.

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THOMAS HOMAN: Those who enter our country illegally violate our country's laws.

GJELTEN: Thomas Homan is director of U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. Speaking at a White House briefing last week, Homan seemed to rule out special treatment for any one group.

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HOMAN: It's a crime to enter this country illegally. The moment law enforcement starts carving out exemptions is the moment the rule of law starts to erode.

GJELTEN: But this across-the-board get-tough policy now means trouble for some Christians who came to the United States to escape persecution at home. Some overstayed their visas or failed to apply for asylum on time or committed some crime. For whatever reason, they have final deportation orders. And those orders are now being enforced much more strictly, even when it means sending Christians back to places where they'll be mistreated, like Chaldean Catholics, who have suffered terribly in their native Iraq. Martin Manna is president of the Chaldean Community Foundation.

MARTIN MANNA: This is not like sending Canadians back to Canada. There is no real homeland remaining for the Christian community in Iraq because of the ongoing persecution.

GJELTEN: More than a hundred Iraqi Christians in the Detroit area were arrested last month and now await deportation. A federal judge last week ordered a temporary stay, but that order expires on Monday. Dozens of Christians from Indonesia, most of them ethnic Chinese, also face deportation. Indonesia is 90 percent Muslim. And Islamist extremism is on the rise there.

SETH KAPER-DALE: Ethnic Chinese Christians being sent back to Indonesia at this particular moment is a very frightening thing.

GJELTEN: Seth Kaper-Dale is a pastor of the Reformed Church in Highland Park, N.J., where he ministers to a number of Indonesian Christians. In May, 4 of his congregants were arrested and deported. They did not have legal status here. But with Kaper-Dale's encouragement, they had been reporting regularly to immigration offices. That was before the Trump administration stepped up deportation efforts and hired new immigration enforcement officers.

KAPER-DALE: That's what we're seeing - is people who were not prioritized before are now being prioritized. And there's a lot more people out there to go hunt them down.

GJELTEN: Kaper-Dale says the Indonesian Christians in his church started worrying about deportation as soon as Trump issued his executive order. One who gave his name only as Billy told NPR in February that he could only hope he'd be allowed to stay here, having fled Indonesia with his parents in 2001 to escape an earlier wave of anti-Christian violence.

BILLY: I have to report with my parents, my mom and my dad. So we just pray, to be honest. We're really scared - me and my wife and especially my parents (laughter). They're really scared.

GJELTEN: Billy did report to immigration authorities again in April. But NPR's efforts to reach him this week were not successful. So far, the Trump administration has been unrelenting in its deportation policy, despite appeals from Christian leaders to at least consider conditions in the countries where people are being returned.

A spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, asked for a comment, referred only to director Thomas Homan's briefing last week when he said deportation procedures will continue without exception. Tom Gjelten, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.