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.
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.
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.
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.”