Vt. native is asking for Leahy to help refugees
By Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Press Bureau | July 05,2012
After graduating from Montpelier High School in 1993, Seth Kaper-Dale followed God to New Jersey.
Two decades later, as this 36-year-old pastor tries to protect refugees in his adopted community 45 minutes outside Newark, the Vermont native is pleading for help from his home state’s senior senator.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is one of the few people left who can help the nine Indonesian refugees holed up in Kaper-Dale’s church in Highland Park, N.J., where federal agents lie in wait in the parking lot outside.
“We need his help,” Kaper-Dale said by phone Tuesday. “We need to find a way to get this bill to floor of the U.S. Senate for a vote as fast as possible. That’s what we’re counting on.”
The bill to which he refers is known as S.3339 and would allow a small group of Indonesian citizens to reopen claims for asylum. The legislation, sponsored by New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg, is part of a last-gasp effort to spare from deportation a group of Indonesians who fled religious persecution in the late 1990s under the brutal Suharto regime.
“These are people who had relatives killed, businesses burned, who have scars on their bodies from machete strikes in the streets,” Kaper-Dale says.
Targeted in Indonesia for their Christian beliefs, the refugees were allowed passage into the United States. But instead of getting refugee status, they were granted only two-year tourist visas.
Kaper-Dale has been working with the refugees since early September 2001, when he and his wife, Stephanie, arrived as the new co-pastors at the Reform Church of Highland Park.
“They had asked the previous pastor, when they arrived years earlier, if they could use our church space to worship on Sunday nights,” Kaper-Dale says.
The Indonesians had until that point enjoyed a life relatively free of scrutiny from federal customs officials. That all changed a week later, when two passenger planes struck the World Trade Center.
“By the end of 2002, John Ashcroft came up with a horrible policy … where if you were a male between the ages of 18 and 65 from one of 22 Muslim countries, you needed to report yourself so the government could make sure you’re not participating in violence in our country,” Kaper-Dale says. “It was a horrible form of racial profiling, and it created havoc for this Christian community.”
Having just fled the wrath of a radical Islamic government, Kaper-Dale says, the Indonesians felt a certain kinship with the victims of the attack.
“So all these Christians decided it was time to step forward and say, ‘Yes, we’re here. We’re not a threat to you, and please help us get on the right page in America.”
To a person, Kaper-Dale says, their requests for asylum were denied. And in a predawn raid in 2006, agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement took 37 men from their homes.
“We watched families literally get torn apart,” Kaper-Dale says. “With trucks and buses waiting outside, they took all these fathers away, many of whom by this time had American citizen children born here since they’d arrived.”
The incident had a profound effect on Kaper-Dale’s church.
“We vowed we would never let that happen again without a fight,” he says. “And since then, that’s what we’ve been doing.”
The inauguration of the Obama administration seemed to signal an end to the uncertainty for Kaper-Dale’s flock. After winning a high-profile immigration battle for one refugee in the Highland Park community, Kaper-Dale says the federal government came to the negotiating table.
“They said to bring forward everybody who’s still scared and we’ll give them work permits and driver’s licenses,” Kaper-Dale says. “They said, ‘We’re all feeling like it’s time for a change, and we don’t want to break up these families.’”
Eighty-three fathers and husbands living in and around Highland Park turned themselves in, along with 103 Indonesian refugees living in New Hampshire and 22 in New York.
Things looked to improve even more on June 17 of last year, when a prosecutorial discretion memo issued by the White House seemed to eliminate the threat of deportation for the Indonesian families.
“We were rejoicing,” Kaper-Dale says. “Then came the unthinkable.”
A letter sent by federal agents last year to the 83 Indonesian men instructed each to purchase a plane ticket for their imminent departure from the country. Many of the men have since been outfitted with electronic ankle bracelets to ensure they leave the country on their designated date.
The developments have been particularly painful for Kaper-Dale, who brokered the 2009 talks that have since turned so sour.
“I told them to not buy plane tickets. I’ve gone with them to all their appointments for reporting, and now we’ve moved nine people into the church building to live,” he says.
They haven’t left the building since, for fear of meeting the same fate as the 13 local men who have been detained and deported since January. One man, Kaper-Dale says, was picked up in the church parking lot, a site frequented by ICE agents looking for the refugees.
Kaper-Dale says emergency legislation pending before the Senate Judiciary Committee that Leahy leads is the only reliable means of saving others from deportation.
His story has been covered heavily in major news outlets, including The New York Times, which featured his church in a front page Sunday story in 2009. But he’s hoping media attention in Vermont will compel residents here to contact Leahy’s office and urge him to move the bill.
“In my whole lifetime, (Leahy) has been somebody who’s been advocating on behalf of Vermonters, and I’d like to think he’s still advocating on behalf of me, a Vermonter displaced in New Jersey for a while,” Kaper-Dale says. “We hope maybe Homeland Security will hear our cry a little louder if that cry is through Patrick Leahy, and maybe the administration could extend the stays of removal for those who are here.”
Leahy spokesman David Carle said in an email Tuesday that the problem in Highland Park stems from a 1996 law — which Leahy vigorously opposed — that shortened the time frame during which newly arrived immigrants can seek asylum.
Carle says Leahy sought to undo those changes with the Refugee Protection Act of 1999. He says Leahy, in response to the plight of the Indonesians in Highland Park, has reintroduced that bill.
“The aim of Sen. Lautenberg’s S.3339 in fact is the same as Sen. Leahy’s larger bill, though Sen. Lautenberg’s bill is more limited in that it only applies to certain Indonesian refugees,” Carle says.
Carle, however, says passage of the bill will be “extremely difficult,” given strong opposition to immigration legislation in Congress.
Kaper-Dale says he appreciates Leahy’s efforts. “His staff has been extremely responsive, and we appreciate his attention to this issue.”
But Kaper-Dale says he’s convinced that S.3339 is the surest legislative vehicle to remedy the problem.
The Princeton Seminary School graduate says he traces his humanitarian streak back to his mother, a schoolteacher, and his father, Steve Dale. Dale is a well-known child-welfare advocate in Vermont, who held high-level human services posts in the gubernatorial administrations of Richard Snelling, Madeline Kunin and James Douglas.
“I know that ultimately, Sen. Leahy would prefer to see something more comprehensive,” Kaper-Dale says. “Of course we all hope for comprehensive reforms, but sometimes we have to fight our battles more piecemeal.”
Kaper-Dale says that, as a son of the Green Mountains, he hopes the plight of his Indonesian friends in New Jersey will resonate with Vermonters back home. If Vermonters register their concern en masse with Leahy, Kaper-Dale hopes, then perhaps S.3339 will get the hearings and committee vote he’s praying for.