By Scott Malone
BOSTON (Reuters) - A U.S. judge wrestled on Friday with how much longer she can delay a Trump administration move to deport 47 Indonesian Christians who fled deadly violence in that country two decades ago and have been living illegally in New Hampshire under an informal deal with immigration officials.
The group had long been allowed to live openly in the state, under an arrangement with Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials that required them to turn in their passports and appear for regular check-ins. That changed after President Donald Trump ordered an end to the ICE exceptions, and the Indonesians now face return to a country where they fear discrimination or violence.
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Chief U.S. District Judge Patti Saris wondered at a hearing in Boston federal court why only one of the immigrants had a written record of the deal. She said she would consider whether she had authority to give them a last chance to argue against deportation.
"This is a hard case," Saris said. "These are good and decent people who have stayed here with our blessing and were given work authority and haven't violated the opinions we imposed on them."
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 Trump's campaign promise to deport millions of illegal immigrants.
Advocates last month sued ICE to stop the deportations, and Saris ordered a temporary halt while she determines whether she has jurisdiction. U.S. immigration matters are normally handled by the executive branch.
The sole witness at Friday's hearing, Timothy Stevens, an ICE supervisory deportation officer, said the group had been allowed to stay after taking part in the 2010 "Operation Indonesian Surrender." At its peak, close to 100 people participated in the program, though Stevens estimated about 70 remain in the country.
He said ICE officials have always had the authority to deport the group.
One of the immigrants, Terry Helmuth Rombot, has been in federal custody since appearing for an August check-in. Lawyers submitted a letter to him from ICE saying that as part of the 2010 deal he would be allowed to leave the country in an "orderly" way.
"ICE decided that the most orderly way for him to depart was for us to remove him," Stevens said.
Saris expressed a dim view of that move.
"The government broke a promise," Saris said. "That's the thing I'm concerned about here."
(Reporting by Scott Malone; editing by Bernadette Baum and David Gregorio)