A federal judge on Wednesday likened a group of Indonesian Christians facing possible deportation by the Trump administration to Jewish refugees trying to escape the Nazis.
Judge Patti B. Saris compared the plight of the Indonesians, who are in the country illegally, to Jews fleeing the Third Reich in a boat — an apparent reference to the infamous case of the St. Louis, an ocean liner that left Germany with 937 passengers, most of them Jews, and was turned away by the US government in 1939. Hundreds of the Jews were later killed during the Holocaust.
The Indonesians argue they will be tortured or killed because of their religion if forced to return to their Muslim-majority homeland. The Trump administration insists they have not proven they would be harmed if they returned to Indonesia.
“We’re not going to be that country,” Saris said Wednesday at a hearing in US District Court in Boston. “We don’t want to put them on the ship unless someone” can review their contention that deportation back to Indonesia is “a really bad situation for them.”
Trump administration lawyers did not respond to the remarks in court. And Saris, who issued an order in September temporarily halting the Indonesians’ deportation, did not issue a new ruling in the case Wednesday.
The case involves about 50 Indonesian Christians who have been living on the Seacoast of New Hampshire and the South Shore of Massachusetts, some for decades, despite not having the proper documentation. Ranging in age from about 40 to 60, most are parents of US citizens and have worked in a variety of fields. One is an administrative assistant. Another fixes trucks.
Most came in the late 1990s and early 2000s during a period of anti-Christian violence in Indonesia. Many overstayed their visas and failed to seek asylum on time. But since 2010, US immigration authorities allowed the otherwise law-abiding Indonesians to live and work here, provided they checked in regularly.
That agreement collapsed when President Trump took office and ordered tougher enforcement of federal immigration laws. In early August, the immigrants were told to report to federal authorities within 30 days, with plane tickets to Indonesia. Instead, they sued in federal court, claiming they had not been given an opportunity to challenge the deportation orders. Their suit prompted Saris to issue her temporary order stopping the deportations.
Lawyers for the Indonesians are not asking Saris to allow the group to stay in the country. Instead, they want Saris to ensure that the Indonesians have the right to raise their torture claims with the Board of Immigration Appeals or a federal appeals court before federal officials can deport them.
The Trump administration contends that the group members should be deported immediately because they have final removal orders. The administration also contends the Indonesians have not shown they would face harm if deported.
“Even if they are removed, petitioners’ generalized evidence of Indonesia’s conditions do not prove that persecution or torture is immediate or likely for each petitioner,” Justice Department lawyers wrote in December. “Their assertion that ‘all face a significant risk of persecution and torture if removed to Indonesia’ is unsupported by facts that relate to any specific petitioner.”
Saris, who grew up in West Roxbury and serves as chief judge of the federal court in Boston, was appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1993. Her comments come at a fraught time for immigration policy, as the Trump administration has ramped up efforts to deport unauthorized immigrants and rescind protections for others who had been allowed to stay in the country. The shifts in policy have prompted fierce pushback from Democrats and immigrant advocates who argue the policies are unfair and antithetical to the country’s values. The battles are being waged in Congress but also in courtrooms across the country.
Saris said she had been reading up on the intricacies of federal immigration law in preparation for Wednesday’s hearing and called it a “big case” and “an important case for me.”
She indicated she wants to keep her role in the dispute focused on the immigrants’ due process rights, and not the larger question of whether they would be persecuted in Indonesia, which could be explored by an appeals court.
Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the American Civil Liberty Union’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, said after the hearing that Saris’s reference to the St. Louis showed she appreciated the historical context of the case.
“She clearly understood the issues,” said Gelernt, who is helping to represent the Indonesians, along with lawyers from Nixon Peabody.
The threat of dozens of deportations has drawn bipartisan support for the Indonesians. New Hampshire’s two Democratic senators, Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan, have been joined by Republican Governor Chris Sununu in urging that their cases be reviewed. Representative Carol Shea-Porter, a Democrat, also has joined the fight.Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@
globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.