BOSTON — A federal judge on Thursday blocked the government from deporting dozens of Christian Indonesians who fear persecution if returned home, until they're given a chance to fight their removal.
U.S. District Judge Patti Saris in Boston said 50 Indonesians living illegally in New Hampshire must be given time to reopen their immigration cases and argue that the conditions in their home country have changed.
"This opinion may literally save lives," said Lee Gelernt, an attorney for the Indonesians. "As the court recognized ... this country's laws do not permit the government to send people back to persecution or torture," said Gelernt, of the American Civil Liberties Union's Immigrants' Rights Project.
The government had urged the judge to deny their bid for a preliminary injunction blocking their removal. The government argued that the court doesn't have jurisdiction over the matter and that the Indonesians failed to show that they would suffer irreparable harm if they aren't granted a reprieve.
A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement official didn't immediately respond to an email seeking comment on Thursday.
Many of the Indonesians went to seacoast communities in New Hampshire, where they found jobs and raised families. In a deal brokered by Democratic U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, of New Hampshire, they were allowed to stay as long as they regularly reported to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office.
But in recent months, they were told during their visits to the immigration office that they should buy plane tickets and prepare to leave the country. Some said they fear returning to Indonesia, a Muslim-majority country, due to an uptick in intolerance and violence against Christians and other minorities.
The judge said the Indonesians have 90 days after they receive paperwork of their prior immigration proceedings to file a motion reopen their case. Her order blocks the government from deporting the Indonesians until after the Board of Immigration Appeals rules on their cases and they have a chance to seek a stay in the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
"A brief delay in unlawful deportation of residents who have lived here with government permission for over a decade outweighs the public interest in prompt execution of removal orders, where petitioners have been law-abiding and pose no threat to public safety," Saris said in her opinion.
The judge in November had blocked their removal until she could consider their request for a preliminary injunction.
The Rev. Sandra Pontoh, an Indonesian community leader in New Hampshire who also leads a church for Indonesians in Madbury, said she was thrilled by the ruling.
"I was hoping the judge would decide to let my friends work on their case for 90 days. That is what we hoped," Pontoh said. "This is wonderful. That means my friends can have time, their lawyers will have more time to work on their cases. This is the last fight for them. In order for them stay here, they have to submit a good case."
Gov. Chris Sununu called the decision good news for New Hampshire and the Dover Indonesian Community.
"The federal court in Boston continues to agree and reaffirm that these cases deserve reexamination," the Republican said in a statement. "I will continue to advocate for a resolution that protects these individuals from religious persecution and allows them to remain in the United States," he said.