HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Supporters of a former Fulbright scholar who took sanctuary at a Connecticut church to avoid deportation rallied Friday to call on federal immigration officials to allow him to stay in the U.S.
About 50 people gathered in a light rain for a peaceful demonstration outside the federal courthouse in Hartford, where Immigration and Customs Enforcement has an office.
Sujitno Sajuti, 70, was ordered by ICE to get on a plane and return to his native Indonesia in October 2017, but instead entered the Unitarian Universalist Church in Meriden. He and his wife have been there ever since.
ICE has a policy to not arrest people at certain “sensitive” locations, including churches. Several other immigrants facing deportation have taken sanctuary in churches in Connecticut.
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“Sending him back to Indonesia where he’s from at this point would be cruel and inhumane considering that he’s an older person,” said Jesus Morales Sanchez, of the Connecticut Immigrant Rights Alliance. “For him to be able to earn a living in Indonesia is going to be very challenging.”
Sajuti, a West Hartford resident, came to the United States in 1981 on a Fulbright Scholarship, earning advanced degrees from Columbia University and the University of Connecticut. He overstayed his student visa and remained in the United States. He has said he has registered with immigration officials since 2001.
Demonstrators huddled under umbrellas, joined in prayer and held signs saying “Set Sujitno Free” and “Shame on ICE Spreading Hate Deporting Love.” They also chanted “Let Sujitno Say!”
ICE officials said in a statement Friday that Sajuti remains an “immigration fugitive” who is evading U.S. immigration law and still faces deportation.
“If an immigration fugitive seeks sanctuary at a site categorized by ICE as a sensitive location it may delay, but does not void ICE’s authority to enforce a final order of removal against that individual,” the statement said.
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, took part in the rally and called on immigration officials to allow Sajuti to stay in the U.S.
“This 70-year-old man has played by the rules, worked hard, violated no laws and is in this position because of previous inadequate legal representation,” Blumenthal said. “He should be given the right to contest the deportation, to reopen his case, have his day in court and seek justice through the immigration system.”
Blumenthal added, “This cruel and unjust possible deportation is another case in the Trump conveyor belt of injustice and cruelty.”
Diana Blank, a nonprofit group lawyer representing Sajuti, said Sajuti filed an appeal of the deportation order and a motion to stay the deportation last July and continues to wait for rulings.