Eko Sukemi remembers giving her husband a snack for the road, an apple and a water bottle, for what Binsar Siahaan thought would be a short trip to the local immigration field office.

It was before 7 a.m. last Thursday when federal agents knocked on Siahaan’s door, surprising his family at their home on the grounds of Glenmont United Methodist Church in Silver Spring, where he and Sukemi work as church caretakers.

Siahaan, an undocumented Indonesian immigrant who has lived in the United States for three decades, had been detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in February and released on an ankle monitor while legal appeals were pending. Last week, the agents said he just had to come with them to make sure the GPS monitor was working.

But once he was outside, Sukemi said, ICE officers handcuffed him and handed the apple and water back to her. He was detained in Baltimore and then transferred to Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga., to await deportation.

“Just like that,” Sukemi said. “They lied.”

Now Siahaan’s attorney and clergy at Glenmont United Methodist are rallying to stop Siahaan’s deportation, accusing ICE of breaching its own protocol by arresting him on church property under false pretenses and while his appeals are still pending.

The case has attracted the attention of Democratic members of the Maryland congressional delegation, including Sen. Chris Van Hollen and Rep. David Trone. Trone said he and his colleagues have spent “months” working behind the scenes to try to help the 52-year-old father of two, “and I will continue to do so.”

Led by Bishop LaTrelle Easterling, Methodists in the Baltimore-Washington Conference are also pleading that ICE release Siahaan.

Siahaan’s attorney, Elsy Ramos Velasquez, has filed a motion for a temporary restraining order to block his deportation. She also filed a petition in Maryland federal court alleging his arrest was illegal, saying ICE entered his home without a warrant by concocting a “ruse” about his ankle monitor.

U.S. District Judge Paul W. Grimm ordered the federal government on Wednesday not to remove Siahaan from the country until he can make a ruling in the case. A hearing is scheduled for Oct. 2.

“There’s a lot of issues surrounding his detention,” said Ramos Velasquez. “And the steps they are taking to go after someone with no criminal record, who has two U.S. citizen children and who has been compliant with all of their requests, is concerning.”

ICE said in a statement that officers arrested Siahaan “after he received full due process in the nation’s immigration courts.” The statement did not address questions regarding the allegations that Siahaan’s arrest violated the law and ICE policy.

“An immigration judge ordered Siahaan’s removal in 2005, which has been upheld through multiple appeals,” the statement said. “Siahaan filed an emergency stay of removal after his most recent arrest, which is currently pending.”

Eko Sukemi, right, with her 16-year-old daughter, who is a U.S. citizen.
Eko Sukemi, right, with her 16-year-old daughter, who is a U.S. citizen. (Family photo)

Across the country, dozens of undocumented immigrants have sought refuge at churches, where they are typically safe from immigration enforcement. But in Siahaan’s case, at the time they moved into the house on church grounds in January, they had no reason to fear ICE would come after them, Sukemi said. They moved in to help take care of the church, which they have been attending for about six years.

“They are super active in the church — they show up for anything,” said the Rev. Kara Scroggins, the church pastor. “The Sunday before he was detained, I was in the church, and the whole family was cleaning and dusting. They’ve been there every week just caring for it, planting gardens outside. He told me the American flag was tattered and he was going to get a new one, so it could fly with more pride.”

Siahaan immigrated to the United States legally in 1989 on an A-3 visa to work as a driver in the Indonesian Embassy, Sukemi said. She followed a few years later, using the same visa to work as a nanny for diplomats’ families. But the couple overstayed their visas after they expired in the early 1990s.

For years they didn’t know what to do, Sukemi said. Their paths to legal residency seemed limited. On advice from an attorney, they applied for asylum on religious grounds in 2003. Siahaan is Christian, and religious minorities in majority-Muslim Indonesia have faced severe persecution; Sukemi later converted to Christianity from Islam.

But the deadline to apply for asylum had passed, and the attorney, who was later disbarred in Maryland for failure to properly represent asylum clients, failed to argue that the couple qualified for any exceptions.

They were ordered deported in 2005, after their appeal failed. By the time the couple was notified — in 2006, Scroggins said — both their children had been born. They decided to stay — and, in 2012, they entered into an “order of supervision” agreement with ICE that required them to check in regularly at the local field office.

They complied for eight years without incident — until February, when ICE detained Siahaan during a routine check-in.

Bette Callet said she knew something wasn’t right when Siahaan, who earns money painting houses, didn’t show up at her home in Rockville for a job that morning. “It was so unlike him,” Callet said. “He was so trustworthy. I left town in February and gave him my key. Nobody has my key. He is just such an upstanding human being.”

Ramos Velasquez said that under President Trump’s administration, immigration attorneys have noticed orders of supervision being revoked more frequently. But she said she ispuzzled by why it happened in Siahaan’s case. “That’s the question we constantly ask ourselves: What changed? What brought this on?” she said. “We never received a clear response.”

The attorney said she hopes to reopen his original removal proceedings, arguing that Siahaan and Sukemi had ineffective counsel the first time. They will pursue asylum again, Ramos Velasquez said, arguing that persecution of Christians in Indonesia has intensified since their original application, leaving room for them to seek asylum again despite the missed deadline.

Sukemi said she cannot imagine returning to Indonesia after about three decades away, especially as a religious minority. Her children don’t speak the language. The schooling system would be unrecognizable. She wants them to go to college in America and wants her family to remain intact.

“I don’t know what to do,” she said. “We cannot go. We cannot stay. It’s hard for me. For a long time, I’m here, I’m working, and I have kids. This is my life.”

She grew upset as she recounted her recent phone call with Siahaan from the detention center: “They treat my husband like a criminal.” It was hard to hear him crying, she said.

“I just pray and pray and pray,” she said, “and I don’t know what will come after.”