America's New Fugitives

In a tiny downtown café in San Francisco, young Agam gazes out the window at a busy street and says he feels he is hiding in plain sight. Agam has decided not to comply with new anti-terrorism requirements that males age 16 and over from Indonesia must register with U.S. immigration authorities.

This Pacific Rim city is a natural first stopping place for Indonesians, whose island nation has the world's largest Muslim population. Most move south to Los Angeles, east to cities including New York and Atlanta, and young single Indonesians may follow the ski resort circuit in Wyoming and Idaho where they work in restaurants. Among the estimated 150,000 Indonesians in the United States, those who stay here blend easily into the local population, with its high percentage of ethnic Asians.

In San Francisco, many like Agam have begun new lives but have expired visas, and now face a no-win situation: certain deportation if they register, or life as fugitives if they refuse to comply.

Since September, visitors from two dozen predominantly Muslim countries have been told to report to immigration offices, where they are fingerprinted and their papers reviewed. If papers are out of order or out of date, they face deportation.

Attorneys and advocates reckon thousands like Agam may not appear by the April 25 deadline.

Agam, 26, fled his home in Aceh, a province of Indonesia rich in oil. Before a recent cease-fire, thousands died in years of war over independence from Jakarta. "We saw people dead on the road every day -- I was afraid," Agam recalls. He did not know he could have applied for political asylum within a year of arriving here on a tourist visa in 2000. Now it is too late.

Agam is watching his life's dream of bringing computer programming skills home to Aceh evaporate: He worries that continuing night college classes will be impossible if he violates the special registration requirement. If he complies, however, he'll almost certainly be told to leave the country.

"People feel damned if they do and damned if they don't," said San Diego attorney Ali Golchin, who represented Iranians and others caught up in December's special registration. The immigration service said it was overwhelmed by numbers then, and many were detained like criminals.

Except for the special registration, Agam might have continued to work in restaurant kitchens or construction sites side by side with Latinos, including many who are undocumented.

"There's millions here from Mexico -- why us?" asked Ipeh, a frustrated friend of Agam's. "They remain just illegals, but now we must become criminals." Married to another Indonesian who works in a pizza restaurant, Ipeh looks Chinese, and dreads returning to Jakarta, where ethnic Chinese have been targeted for street mugging and extortion.

The special registrations have covered visitors from a host of countries including Iraq, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, but Indonesians say they feel especially baffled and betrayed. Jakarta is a firm Washington ally in the terrorism war; Indonesians are proud of their country's quick police work and arrests after December's Bali terror bombing. On Jan. 17, President Megawati Soekarnoputri met with Assistant Secretary of State James Kelley in Jakarta to complain about the registration process, calling it discriminatory.

Many of those subject to special registration speak Arabic, and have been able to use the plentiful U.S. Arabic media to get information. Indonesians have fewer places to look. Emile Mailangkay, editor of the Fontana, Calif.-based Indonesia Journal, runs paid ads from immigration lawyers and excerpts from the Federal Register "to help our people because many don't understand English that well."

Indonesia Media, another magazine, helps readers new to America understand how to file tax returns or apply for home loans, and now also urges compliance with the registration. It can be a risky role. When hundreds of Iranians were detained in December, the U.S. Farsi media became a target of community anger for appearing to be complicit with authorities.

Mass detentions have not taken place in the current registration round, and Indonesia Media editor Ibrahim Irawan is optimistic. "In Indonesia we see police and our hearts are pounding with fear, but we must tell the community here they promote security."

Even legal residents, however, are feeling insecure. Robert and Andrew chose "American sounding" names. Both received political asylum -- they are gay, ethnic Chinese and Christian, which made them targets of intolerance at home. During Jakarta riots in l998, a crowd incinerated Robert's car, and Andrew's neighborhood church was burned down.

Robert does not feel free to travel because things seem "unpredictable -- maybe I'd be refused re-entry to the United States if the immigration agent is having a bad day."

Though only 25, Robert is here legally and owns a home and a coffee shop. Among young, uprooted Indonesians he is treated as a kind of elder who can give advice. He counseled Agam to marry an American girl, and acts as a go-between with immigration consultants. He advises some who have been here less than a year to apply for asylum because at least that "stops the clock" while the request is considered, although most are denied now that Indonesia is regarded as a democracy with laws that respect rights.

The Indonesian consulate has been hosting open meetings to exchange information, a way "to calm people down" as one official put it. Despite an elegant buffet, crystal chandeliers and spectacular bay views, no one at a recent meeting seemed at ease. "I am not a criminal," said one after another -- college student, middle age office worker, a cook -- all looking for loopholes.

Immigration attorney Allan A. Samson carefully answered questions in English and Indonesian about weighing voluntary departure against other options. But finally, he summed up the current climate ominously. "It's as if you were in the mafia and you're about to be killed. It's nothing personal -- somebody can shoot you or give you a gun and you can shoot yourself -- it's deportation with a smile," Samson said as listeners winced. "Sooner or later if you're out of status you're gone, or you're in hiding."

PNS writer Mary Jo McConahay ( is a journalist and filmmaker with long experience in the Middle East.


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