At first, all anyone knew was that the couple had vanished after ICE agents approached them outside their South Philadelphia home on the morning of July 2.
Then came a friend’s desperate effort to get information from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement field office in Center City. And a phone call confirming that the two were being held in federal immigration detention.
That’s what played out in the hours after the undocumented Indonesian couple, Elly Sukawanputra and her husband, Yulius, were arrested near the Italian Market as they left home to go to work.
On Monday, five months later, supporters in a York County courtroom wept when a judge ruled after a 20-minute hearing that the two could be released on bail of $2,500 each. They were free by about 2:30 p.m.
Sukawanputra said that she felt blessed and happy for the support of the couple’s friends and community.
She and Yulius came to the United States in 1998 to escape religious and ethnic persecution after riots resulted in the removal of the Indonesian president. By the time their bid for asylum was turned down in 2007 and 2009, they had welcomed two daughters.
Friends said the parents, who had previously been identified by partial names, had been checking in with ICE every year as required and never expected to be arrested.
“There was no warning at all,” said Sinta Penyami Storms, a community leader known for teaching traditional Indonesian dance. “When I got the call from Yulius in the detention center, my heart dropped.”
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said Monday they needed more information about the case before being able to comment.
The couple’s saga gained wide attention in the Philadelphia region after Stockton University professor Elisa von Joeden-Forgey wrote what became a viral Facebook post and opinion essay for The Inquirer about her frantic attempts to help her friends while they were being held in Center City.
Their arrest, as they left for jobs at a delicatessen, angered and upset their neighbors and members of the city’s Indonesian and Asian communities, who noted that the couple have never been in trouble with the law.
The case illustrates how families can be broken apart when the arrest of undocumented, adult immigrants leaves their American-born citizen children without financial or parental support. The couple’s daughters are 20 and 15.
“It’s unbelievably wonderful news,” Stockton professor von Joeden-Forgey said of the couple’s release. “They’ve been through so much. This is a terrible violation of their human rights. I know how much they suffered not only from being detained, but from being separated from their two children and from being unable to provide economically for their children."
Sukawanputra’s brother took over caring for the daughters, one of whom attends Swarthmore College, while the other goes to a Philadelphia high school. “Heroic,” said von Joeden-Forgey, who teaches Holocaust and genocide studies.
The father was confined at the Pike County Correctional Facility, the mother at York County Prison.
“This is a common tactic that ICE uses not only to separate families, but also to make it incredibly hard for community organizations to track their location and connect them with necessary legal and community support,” said Alix Webb, executive director of Asian Americans United in Philadelphia.
Attorney Chris Casazza successfully filed a motion to reopen their asylum case due to changing conditions in their homeland. Indonesians who are Christians and of Chinese descent, like this family, have been targets of rising ethnic and religious violence there.
Earlier this year, at least 32 people were killed and dozens injured in riots after a hoax about a student being racially abused went viral on social media.
Friends described the couple as homeowners and taxpayers who have been important members of the Indonesian community and their South Philadelphia neighborhood.
“There are countless others like [the couple] in detention right now,” City Councilwoman Helen Gym said. “We have to shine a light on the abuses of a broken immigration system that allowed this to happen in the first place.”