Wed, 30 Apr 2003

Indonesian illegal immigrants in the U.S. unwilling to go home

Laila Weir, Student, Graduate School of Journalism, University of California, Berkeley

The deadline to register with the United States immigration service has passed, but many Indonesians living here illegally, some for decades, are still in the country.

Indonesians interviewed said they were afraid to register because many of those who did register were arrested for immigration violations.

More than 3,000 men from 25 countries were detained when they registered and 172 remain in custody. Almost 10,000 of the nearly 75,000 men who have registered now face deportation hearings, according to an immigration bureau spokesperson.

While national numbers are not available, only 14 Indonesians were detained in the area covered by the San Francisco consulate, which spans Northern California, Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska.

That may be because Indonesians are staying away from the immigration offices altogether.

"It is my impression that most Indonesians probably haven't registered," said Allan Samson, a San Francisco immigration attorney who represents some Indonesians. "They've either avoided it or sought to go home."

Many Indonesians have in fact flown back to their home country, according to travel agents.

"Recently, there have been a lot of one-way tickets booked," said Fenina Mundisugih, a San Francisco travel agent who has sold airplane tickets to Indonesians.

Under new rules announced in February, Indonesian men over the age of 16 were required to register with the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services by April 25. Only U.S. citizens and permanent residents are exempt.

Indonesia is one of the most recent additions to a list of 25 predominantly Muslim countries whose male nationals are required to register with the U.S. government. Men from other countries, mostly Arab and Middle Eastern, registered earlier this year.

Neither the consulate nor the immigration bureau could estimate how many Indonesians have registered.

Pesy, a 29-year-old illegal resident who asked that his last name be withheld, said he did not register because he heard stories of arrests.

Pesy came to California when he was 19 to study English and economics. After graduating, he looked for a job, but was unable to find a company willing to pay the steep legal fees and navigate the tight restrictions associated with hiring a foreign worker. His paperwork expired in December and he has been here illegally since then.

Now he plans to return to the home he has barely seen in a decade. He says he worries about adjusting to life there, finding work and even making new friends.

"After 10 years, I've become part of America," he says. "I don't know how to deal with Indonesia now. I haven't lived there for 10 years. I never lived there as an adult."

Qorib, 32, is also planning to leave the United States. He was a successful businessman in Jakarta before the Asian economic crisis sent his two companies, an advertising agency and an exhibition contracting firm, into bankruptcy.

With his companies in debt, he came to San Francisco seeking work in 2001. He overstayed his tourist visa, taught himself English and got a job in a restaurant, sending money back to his wife and young daughter.

"There were a lot of ways to get a job here even if you are illegal, especially if it's a job that Americans don't want to do, if it's a tough job, a hard job with a low salary," he said.

Qorib has not seen his family in almost three years. He dreamed of applying for a green card and one day bringing his family to join him in California, but now he said his plans have changed.

"Right after I heard about the registration program, I decided to go home," he said. "I won't register because I don't want to go to jail and I don't like that policy ... because it's only Muslim immigrants. That's not the American style I knew before." He plans to return to Jakarta in August.

Other Indonesians in the San Francisco area, who asked to remain unnamed, reported that perhaps hundreds of their friends and relatives have already boarded planes back to Indonesia.

Indonesian officials estimate there are 3,500 Indonesians living in and around San Francisco.

Indonesians with immigration violations who have opted to register rather than flee or stay underground have generally been released quickly, said Krishna Hannan, vice consul at the Indonesian Consulate in San Francisco.

They have been released on bonds of between US$500 and $5,000, depending on how long they overstayed their visas, and will have four months to conclude their affairs before leaving the country.

They were accorded this time under an agreement negotiated last month by Indonesian government officials and U.S. officials, Hannan said.

Rizal Effendi, director general of the department of foreign affairs, led the Indonesian negotiating team.

Some men with close relatives who are legal permanent residents or American citizens may be able to contest their illegal status. They will be given 15 to 18 months to take care of their cases, according to the agreement.

Men who do not register may not be permitted to reenter the United States in the future. Pesy said the realization that he may not be able to return is perhaps the hardest part of leaving.

"I am sad that I cannot come back to see my friends anymore," he said.

"The best time of my life I spent in California. This country is so multiracial, so multiethnic. I see people from all over the world here and I think, 'If they can live in the United States, why can't I?' I think this country is made by immigrants. That's one thing that makes this country so good."