By Scott Malone
BOSTON (Reuters) - A federal judge on Monday ordered U.S. immigration officials to delay any efforts to deport 51 Indonesians living illegally in New Hampshire so the group can have time to argue that changing conditions in that country would make it dangerous to return.
The order affects a group of Indonesian Christians who fled violence in that country two decades ago and had been living openly for years in New England under an informal deal. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials in August began ordering them to prepare to leave the country within two months.
Most members of the group covered by the 2010 deal with ICE entered the United States legally but overstayed their visas and failed to seek asylum on time.
Beginning in August, members of the group who showed up for ICE check-ins were told to prepare to leave the country, in keeping with U.S. President Donald Trump's campaign promise to crack down on illegal immigration.
Members of the group have said in interviews with Reuters that they fear they would face persecution or violence for their Christian faith and Chinese ethnicity if they were returned to the world's largest majority-Muslim country.
Federal law gives authority over immigration matters to the executive branch, not the courts. Chief U.S. District Judge Patti Saris in Boston found she had authority to ensure the Indonesians have a chance to argue that conditions in their home country had deteriorated significantly enough to reopen their cases for trying to stay in the United State.
She worried that without the order, ICE officials could deport some of the Indonesians covered by the suit, at which time they would lose the opportunity to have their cases reopened.
"The government shall inform the court whether petitioners, who are not detained, will have access to emergency procedures if they must file their original motions to reopen," Saris wrote.
ICE officials said in federal court filings that they would be appealing an earlier decision by Saris telling the agency to hold off deporting any of the Indonesians covered by the 2010 agreement. An ICE spokesman on Monday declined to comment on the latest court order.
The Indonesians are part of an ethnic community of about 2,000 people clustered around the city of Dover in New Hampshire's seacoast region. Their cause has drawn the support of the state's all-Democratic congressional delegation, including U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen and Republican Governor Chris Sununu.
(Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Peter Cooney)