HIGHLAND PARK — Speaking at a church where Indonesian immigrants have come to seek asylum from potential deportation, Gov. Phil Murphy said Thursday that the state was behind them even though the federal government sought to deport them.

Joined by U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J. 6th District, at the Reform Church of Highland Park, Murphy met a man who had been able to avoid arrest by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. Two other men were not as fortunate.

The men are ethnic Chinese Christians who came to the country in the 1990s to escape religious persecution in Indonesia.

The man who was able to reach the church seeking sanctuary is Harry Pangemanan, the father of two school-age children and who recently received the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Award from the Highland Park Human Relations Commission. He was given the award in recognition of his work helping to repair more than 200 homes in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Pallone said the award had gained Pangemanan notice in local media before agents tried to take him into custody.

“The Trump administration has now gone to new lows in its extreme, cruel and inhumane immigration policy," Pallone said in a statement. "Now it is actually targeting members of our community who are being recognized for their service and commitment to human rights."

The Rev. Seth Kaper-Dale said the men had valid I-246 stays of removal from ICE, meaning that they were not due to check with immigration officials. Immigrant advocates have criticized ICE for arresting refugees who have been following the law by reporting to immigration offices. Kaper-Dale called Thursday arrests "preemptive strikes" by the feds.

Indonesian immigrants in New Jersey who overstayed their visas from the 90s have had their removal from the country routinely extended by federal officials for years as they sought asylum status, but a number have been deported since 2006.

Kaper-Dale said the Trump administration's bid to deport 2 million immigrants by targeting those with so-called final orders of removal have led ICE agents to seek out "low-hanging fruit" like the Indonesian immigrants instead of criminals.

Federal officials have traditionally honored the concept of sanctuary behind the walls of a house of worship even though there is no legal basis for doing so.

In a letter to John Tsoukaris, the field office director for ICE, Pallone said he has worked with the Highland Park church for close to nine years to help Christian Indonesians who came to this country and overstayed their nonimmigrant visitor's visas.

"I understand that your agency is tasked with carrying out the priorities of the current Administration, however, I urge you to continue to exercise prosecutorial discretion in dealing with Christian Indonesians," Pallone wrote.

At the church, the state officials met families of the Indonesian men who shared their stories and concerns about their future in the country.

The wife of one of the men who had been detained said she came to the country in 1998 to seek a better life. She told Murphy she has been working and paying taxes since coming to this country and "never claimed a penny from the government." She said before leaving Indonesia, she and her family were at risk of being raped and tortured by the government.

"We are here. We're working hard," the woman, whose children are U.S. citizens, said. "I didn't ask for anything. Just leave us alone."

Murphy, who has not shied away from taking on the Trump administration during his first two weeks in office, said people needed to "put our heads together and figure out how to respond to this."

"This can't stand. This is not our country. It's not our values. It's not the place you came to to escape the persecution."

Kaper-Dale, a former Green Party candidate for governor, recorded two ICE agents knocking on Pangemanan's door earlier in the day.

During the campaign, Murphy said he would make New Jersey a "sanctuary state" even though the federal government has threatened to cut funding to sanctuary cities across the country. Speaking on Thursday, Murphy called the country "the beacon of immigration around the world."

"I believe with all my heart it still is that country even though we've got a president right now who's doing everything he can to undermine that," he said.

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