Couples across the region are preparing to celebrate Valentine’s Day on Monday. But for one pair of Philadelphians, the holiday could mark the end of their union. Half the couple is set to be deported Monday.
Anton Tanumihardja, slight and kind-eyed, has a youthful look that belies his 45 years. For years, Anton has lived and worked in Philadelphia. But he’s not here legally. He came to the U.S. on a six-month tourist visa back in 2002 from his native Indonesia. When his visa expired, Anton began to seek asylum. He got a two-year work permit, but his asylum claim has been continually denied, despite no formal hearing.
“I’m still filing the motion for my status here,” he says. “And then the motion for reopening my case of 2003, I didn’t hear anything from report of immigration. So I’m hoping that I can hear something good.”
For the past five years, Anton has worked at Coventry Deli at 20th and Market streets in Center City. He has an accounting background, so he stays late at the deli to do bookkeeping. He says pays taxes on everything he makes. He’s never tried to hide who he is or where he’s from.
Anton would seem to have a compelling case for asylum. Anton is gay, which doesn’t go over well in Indonesia. The gay community there is forced underground. Anton recounts a time some of his friends were at a secretly planned gay party, which was raided by Muslim extremists. The partygoers fled, and some were seriously injured. He was almost at that party, but the ever-industrious Anton didn’t want to miss work.
“They attacked inside the building where all the gay people were just having a meeting, and then everybody had to run to save their life,” he recalls. “My friend had to stay in the hospital because he tried to jump through the fence and scratched his arm.”
If being gay weren’t enough, Anton is also ethnically Chinese and Catholic. All three make him a minority and potential target of violence in Indonesia.
Last year, Anton started dating Brian Andersen, an American citizen. If they were a straight couple and could get married, Anton’s union with Brian would mean he would get to stay. The federal Defense of Marriage Act means even if they were married in a state like Massachusetts, Anton’s immigration status would not change. But Brian and Anton say they’ve never made excuses in life, and they’re not about to start now. They’re more upset about Anton’s limbo status when it comes to asylum.
“We’re not asking to change the law,” says Brian. “I mean, we know the law’s not going to change and we have to abide by it, and we will continue to do that, Anton as a stand-up person and myself as an American citizen, that the law is the law and we will abide by it. But, the government has discretion to make these calls of delaying deportation based on a pending case that has not been adjudicated.”
Brian says Congressman Bob Brady has sent a letter of support on their behalf to Immigration.
Nationwide, there are about 36 thousand same sex, bi-national couples in the U.S. with one partner facing deportation, according to Lavi Soloway. He founded the non-profit Immigration Equality, and is now advising Anton in his asylum case.
“He is triply vulnerable as a gay man who is ethnically Chinese and non-Muslim, he’s less likely to be able to get any kind of protection from police or any authorities, all of whom are members of the dominant ethnicity and dominant religion,” says Soloway, who noted that Anton has no criminal record.
But despite his compelling argument, Soloway tempers his expectations for Anton. He says like many foreigners trying to get legal status, Anton made his original case by himself, without knowing that people like Soloway exist to help him navigate the system. That’s hurt his chances.
“This relatively absurd situation, where a person has a non-frivolous, viable, strong, well founded motion to reopen proceedings pending while they’re also on their way out the door, being forced out by a deportation order, that seems to be in conflict.” says Soloway. “It doesn’t seem to make any sense, however it is very common, and most people would never imagine that there was a way to fight that.”
Anton has a friendly, outgoing manner, and he often gets into conversations with customers at his deli. He says he’s been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support they’ve give him.
“All the people who know what happened with my case, they were crying. I want to cry now,” he says, choking back tears. “I just…they love me so much. They love me because…I don’t know why. I’m not faking anything. You know, what I express to them is: I am Anton. This is…who I am.”
You can find out more about Anton and call to support delaying his deportation at stopthedeportations.com.