Cleve May, left, pastor of CityWell Church, flanked by Samuel Oliver’s wife and son with the Rev. William Barber II, right, at a protest outside the Wake County Detention Center in Raleigh, N.C., on Nov 26, 2018. RNS photo by Yonat Shimron

After arrest of protected immigrant, sanctuary church members cry out for justice

DURHAM, N.C. (RNS) — Two days after government agents had forcibly detained Samuel Oliver-Bruno, an undocumented immigrant who had taken sanctuary at the CityWell Church, congregants stood up one after another at a Sunday service to cry out in protest.

“We have suffered the betrayal of our government,” said one member of the church.

“The fabric of our community has been violated,” said another.

“Evil is no longer rhetorical,” said a third. “It’s corporal. It’s real.”

For this multicultural United Methodist Church in a mixed-race pocket of Durham, Oliver-Bruno's arrest as he appeared for fingerprinting at an office of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency has opened a wound. For nearly a year the congregation has allowed Oliver-Bruno, 47, to live in the church's basement.

The Mexican native, a husband and father who had been working in construction in Greenville, N.C., took refuge at CityWell in December 2017 to avoid a deportation order. In the space of 11 months he became a much-loved member of the congregation, preaching on at least one occasion and teaching the band to perform praise songs in Spanish.

Samuel Oliver-Bruno with his wife, Julia Perez, in February 2018. Photo by Anna Carson DeWitt

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

After taking him in, the congregation, a 7-year-old startup with a burgeoning membership of young families with children, joined the North Carolina Sanctuary Coalition to advocate against immigration policies that tear families apart. The coalition includes a handful of other churches across the state that have taken in undocumented immigrants facing immediate threat of deportation. There are 52 people across the country taking sanctuary mostly in churches, according to Church World Service. That includes 11 children.

On Monday night, two U.S. congressmen announced that Oliver-Bruno's petition for deferred deportation has been denied and that he was scheduled to be deported. Reps. David Price and G.K. Butterfield, who represent parts of Durham, called Oliver-Bruno's treatment by ICE  "a miscarriage of justice" and called on Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to immediately reverse his order of removal.

Hundreds of protesters also gathered Monday at the Wake County Detention Center in Raleigh to demand that ICE release Oliver-Bruno. The Rev. William Barber II, the anti-poverty activist, and civil rights leader, announced that Oliver-Bruno had been moved to a detention facility in Georgia.

"This snatching  of families has a deep and long and evil history and we will call it out for what it is," Barber thundered. "It's evil."

On the Friday after Thanksgiving (Nov. 23), two dozen church members accompanied Oliver-Bruno on the 15-mile drive to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) office in Morrisville, where he expected to be fingerprinted as part of an application for a deferral of his deportation to Mexico on humanitarian grounds. His wife, Julia Perez, suffers from lupus and a heart condition and he is the family’s only breadwinner capable of paying for her medical care.

Oliver-Bruno, who has been living in the U.S. for more than two decades, decided to submit to the fingerprinting on the advice of his pro bono lawyers at a Duke University law clinic and another nonprofit dedicated to helping undocumented immigrants.

By leaving the church grounds, he knew he was taking a risk. Churches — along with schools and hospitals — are considered “sensitive locations” where federal immigration enforcement officers are unlikely to arrest, search or interview people under most circumstances.

But he figured this was his last best chance.

At 7:45 a.m. Friday, Oliver-Bruno, his 19-year-old son, Daniel, and several of the church’s pastors and congregants got into cars for the drive to the immigration office. There they were met by more than 40 other church members and friends.

A handful walked into the building with Oliver-Bruno, where he was given papers to fill out. When he finished, he walked over to the processing line, said Cleve May, a pastor of the church who accompanied him.

Seconds later, four plainclothes ICE officers tackled Oliver-Bruno and his son to the ground, May said. After releasing his son, they then whisked Oliver-Bruno down the corridor and out to a van waiting in the rear of the building.

Leaders at the CityWell Church pray for Daniel, center, son of Samuel Oliver-Bruno, who was arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers on Nov. 23, 2018. RNS photo by Yonat Shimron

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

For two hours church members and friends surrounded the van, chanting prayers and singing songs, preventing the driver from backing out. After police arrested 27 people, the van drove off with Oliver-Bruno to the Wake County Detention Center in Raleigh.

U.S. Reps. David Price and G.K. Butterfield, who represent parts of Durham, quickly sent a letter to USCIS requesting deferred action from deportation.

“At best, Mr. Oliver-Bruno was presented with a catch-22 dilemma. At worst, he was entrapped,” the two congressmen, both Democrats, said in a statement.

Church leaders who witnessed the events said the same. “I cannot see how the biometric test was not actually bait for Samuel,” said May, pastor of CityWell, and one of those arrested on charges of failure to disperse and resisting a public officer.

“The hardest question for us as a nation is here," said May. "Do we really want to be a people with a government that can lure us into a legal process and when we comply with the legal process use Gestapo sting tactics to detain us? Is that who we want to be as a nation?”

Asked why he was arrested, ICE spokesman Bryan D. Cox wrote in an email, “Mr. Oliver-Bruno is a convicted criminal who has received all appropriate legal process under federal law, has no outstanding appeals, and has no legal basis to remain in the U.S.”

Cox referred to Oliver-Bruno's re-entry to the U.S. in 2014 when he used what ICE said were "fraudulent identity documents." He had gone back to Mexico briefly to visit his ailing parents.

Samuel Oliver-Bruno, right, with his son, Daniel Oliver Perez, in February 2018. Photo by Anna Carson DeWitt

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

On Saturday night hundreds of people, including the mayor and a city councilman, attended a church vigil of lament and prayer.

Oliver-Bruno’s wife broke into tears as she stepped forward to address the crowd. Her son, a first-year student at Pitt Community College near Greenville, N.C., added that despite the terror of his father’s arrest, he felt God’s protection.

“God told me, ‘Do not be afraid. I will protect your father as God protected Daniel from the mouth of the lion,'” Daniel Oliver Perez said.

Congregants then read aloud The Immigrants’ Creed, which begins, “I believe in Almighty God, who guided the people in exile and in exodus.”

But it was at Sunday’s two-hour service that members were encouraged to express their feelings. Many said they felt indignation about a government immigration system they said was broken.

“They maliciously laid a trap for him, and I’m pretty mad about it,” said Deb Fletcher, a member.

They remembered Oliver-Bruno as a man of deep faith who had worked toward a certificate from Duke Divinity School’s Hispanic-Latino/a Preaching Initiative while in sanctuary, and they lamented his empty chair.

“God has bound us in joy for so long,” said Corey Summers, a church member. “Today God is binding us in suffering.”

Pastor Cleve May, left, raises his hands during Sunday morning worship at the CityWell Church in Durham, N.C., on Nov 25, 2018. RNS photo by Yonat Shimron

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.


  1. ICE, saving society from the dangers of a menial worker with a disabled American citizen spouse!

    At this point its safe to say ICE is not doing much of anything other than filling quotas with easy targets.

  2. Matthew 25:36, not ICE Regulation 2934.78.3459 Sec A Paragraph 6.

  3. Hopefully his construction job went to an actual American citizen, and not another illegal alien.

  4. I know a guy who builds houses in California. When surf is up, his Anglo workers don’t show. His Hispanic workers do show.

  5. For those of us, including the subject Methodists here, who do not agree with our present Trumpism overtaking the USA, there is one thing we have to face FIRST: American Evangelicals in the “Every Word of This Bible is True” brands of churches are the people who elected and who still support the Trumpism. Most of them would agree with the treatment of the immigrant in this story. The American political struggle is all at church. It is between those who believe in the Spirit of the Bible and those whose Biblical rigidity leads them to follow any hateful thing with enthusiasm. We need to know what explains America’s slide into meanness, who enables it and why they do.

  6. It started with Barack Hussein Obama and the beer summit.

  7. I’m sure Egyptians said the same about Joseph when the Holy Family were illegal aliens fleeing Herod’s gangbangers & terrorists in Judea. They were there a number of years until Herod died. The kids at school likely teased Jesus because he was different, as they were badly influenced by parents like you!

  8. That certainly makes it easier to find and arrest any illegals working for him.

  9. The phrase “Herod’s gangbangers & terrorists” misuses the words “gangbangers” and “terrorists”, both of which refer to individuals operating OUTSIDE the law.

    The words “storm troopers” and “lieutenants” might work.

  10. Justice involves getting what is owed us.

    In this instance Samuel Oliver-Bruno, a law-breaker, is receiving justice.

    Complete justice would be the arrest and trial of pastor Cleve May and any other members of the CityWell Church involved in the illegal activity of knowing involvement in this illegal activity.

    Mercy, the gratuitous foregoing of justice by someone of that which is owed, is the only reason the lot of them are not in cuffs.

  11. Such ignorant nonsense! How were they illegal aliens? Jews broke no immigration laws going to Egypt. There was, in fact, a very large Jewish population there, and there was free ingress and egress to and from Egypt, which was at that time a Roman province.

    Joseph and the Holy Family would most likely have settled in a place like Alexandria, an Egyptian city with a large Jewish quarter. If Jesus went to any sort of school there, the class would have consisted of fellow Jews and been taught by a Jewish teacher. Your fantasy of little Jesus sitting in an American style multi-ethnic Public School and being teased by others because he was different is just precious!

    You really ought to refrain from writing on topics you know nothing about. Take to heart the saying: “Even a fool, who keeps silent, is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.” (Proverbs 17:28).

  12. If you supported organized labor, that would not be an issue.

  13. To a conservative Christian, lawbreaking is only a matter of conscience when they are laws against discrimination, fraud, campaign finance, sexual assault, and domestic violence.

    Fact was, most of this person’s offenses were waivable at the discretion of the USCIS based on marriage to a US citizen. Not exactly serious offenses.

  14. Silly Spuddie, I support organized labor. Both my wife and my son are Union members, a valuable benefit.

  15. Do you have anything to say addressing the content of my reply to David Allen? Guess not…

  16. But not a benefit to fellow conservatives who have been slowly destroying it.

  17. Matthew 25 exhorts us to clothe the naked, give drink to the thirsty, food to the hungry, care for the sick, etc.

    Both illegal aliens here, and those people detained at our borders, are provided with necessary clothing, healthy food and drink, as well as necessary medical attention – free of charge, courtesy of the American taxpayer – while their cases are being processed and adjudicated.

    So we’re good there.

  18. Your distinction here is that the person here broke the laws to get here and therefore is unworthy of consideration as s human being. Upholding the law being the most important thing to a moral consideration apparently.

  19. That has nothing to do with the content of my reply to David Allen. Thank you for confirming I was right about your having nothing to say about the Holy Family and Egypt.

    And of course Oliver-Bruno is worthy of “consideration as a human being”; that is why he is being held accountable to laws that are applicable only to human beings, and not to squirrels or pelicans. A human being treated as a human being, imagine that!

  20. everyone talks about a broken immigration system, the laws are there and the immigrants BREAK THE LAWS thus making themselves illegal immigrant aliens for having no respect and choosing to break our immigration laws in place, with the laws in place and anyone breaking them is a mockery an taunting of our laws thus good reason for arrest for trampling our borders and laws.

  21. It was an attempt at a parable. I’m not as trained at it as Jesus.

    Your insults just verify that you are the south end of a north bound donkey.

  22. Perhaps it’s the better of two evils. Get arrested, live in detainment housing, get fed and survive or get killed by the gangs and such that Uncle Sam’s involvement in Central America allowed to become the uncontrollable monsters that they are.

    The US aided and abetted the mess and now wants to turn its back to and punish the refugees. And the white racist you lot put in the White House wants to change the rules of seeking asylum and leave the refugees in the zwilight zone.

  23. Nice try, but YOU are the one who deflected by NOT addressing the content of my reply to David Allen. I am still waiting for you to do so…

  24. Jacob and his sons weren’t illegal aliens isn’t much to hang your hat on there. 🙂

  25. An attempt that failed due to your not knowing what you were talking about. Sorry if accurate historical data insults you.

    As for the quote from Proverbs, well, that brings to mind another popular saying: “If the shoe fits, wear it!”.

  26. Who brought up Jacob and his sons? Not me!

    Do you have any idea what you are talking about?

  27. Who is Joseph’s father and brothers again?

    Evidently Old Testament geneology is not your thing. 🙂

  28. People who make a big deal of upholding the immigration laws to a draconian degree never actually know about the laws in question. Its all about bleating about rule of law with zero knowledge of what it means.

    All of the offenses this man allegedly committed were waivable by USCIS in the course of his current documented effort at staying here legally. Which means it is far less than you are trying to pretend it is.

    You are doing the equivalent of demanding the death penalty for jaywalking. “The Judge Dredd Argument” where one demands total and strict adherence to laws they are entirely ignorant of. Useful for authoritarians and dictators, complete garbage in a free society with rule of law.

    So you can take your ignorant whining and shove it. All your talk about making a mockery of our laws means squat when one doesn’t even know what they are. You are just using this as an excuse to treat this person as less than human and ignore the more complicated situation here.

    A pretense for empty finger wagging.

    ‘As I said, you can rest easier now that ICE is filling up quotas with easy targets and saving you from the presence of inoffensive menial laborers married to US citizens.

  29. He was not referring to the OT fable of the Israelites in Egypt but the NT fable wherein Joseph, Mary and Jesus fled to escape from Herod.

  30. It is unclear what the name of Joseph the Betrothed’s father was, although he was of the House of David. He had several sons (James, Justus, Jude and Simon) and several daughters from his earlier marriage, and was the older brother of Cleopas.

  31. At this rate Methodists should be the most loved Church in America.

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