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ICE Arrests North Carolina Man Who Had Been in Sanctuary; 27 Faith Allies Arrested During Protest

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Over Thanksgiving weekend In Durham, North Carolina, two dozen members of CityWell United Methodist Church were arrested after attempting to prevent Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) from detaining Samuel Oliver-Bruno, who had taken sanctuary in the church eleven months earlier.  

Oliver-Bruno, a 47-year-old father whose 19-year-old son, Daniel, is a U.S. citizen, first came to the United States with his wife in 1994 but returned to Mexico in 2011 to help take care of his ailing parents. The family returned to the United States three years later seeking medical treatment for Oliver-Bruno’s wife, Julia, who has lupus and began coughing up blood. When crossing the border in 2014, Oliver-Bruno was arrested for crossing without documentation. Oliver-Bruno was allowed to remain in the country under an order of supervision because of Julia’s failing health.

In November 2017, under the new Trump Administration, the government revoked Oliver-Bruno’s order of supervision even though a joint statement from Democratic Congressmembers David Price (NC-04) and G.K. Butterfield (NC-01) said that the family had been “productive and upstanding members of the community for many years, with no serious criminal records and deep ties in the faith community.” Fearing deportation and separation from his sick wife and son, Oliver-Bruno sought sanctuary in the CityWell church while he attempted to appeal the government to be able to stay.

For the next eleven months, Oliver-Bruno stayed at the church, fearing that if he left ICE would detain him if he left. Oliver-Bruno even had to miss Daniel’s graduation. He stepped off church grounds for the first time over Thanksgiving weekend to go to an appointment with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and move forward with his appeal to stay in the county. However, community members were suspicious that ICE might take the opportunity to detain him, and over a hundred traveled with him to the appointment. As Pastor Cleve May of CityWell told the Washington Post, “we don’t really believe that sanctuary is just a building.”

Unfortunately, their suspicions proved correct. Moments after entering the USCIS office, Oliver-Bruno was tackled to the ground by plain-clothed ICE agents. The agents then dragged Oliver-Bruno to a waiting van, but community members calling for his release quickly surrounded the agents. Pastor May and some 26 other congregants surrounded the van, blocking it from leaving while singing church hymns. Their refusal to move and to let the detention of Oliver-Bruno go unchallenged led to their arrests.

“We are extremely alarmed,” said the joint statement from Reps. Price and Butterfield. “Oliver-Bruno was presented with a catch-22 dilemma; at worst, he was entrapped. It’s clear that while Mr. Oliver-Bruno was attempting to follow the law in pursuit of his legal petition, ICE coordinated with USCIS to target him upon his leaving the City Well United Methodist Church.”

The Congressmen went on to conclude that the “sudden and inappropriate arrest in the middle of the Thanksgiving season reflects the callous and cruel approach we’ve come to expect from the Trump administration. As Members of Congress representing the Durham community, we will continue to do everything in our power to keep the Oliver-Bruno family together.”

The response of the Durham community to surround, support, and advocate for their neighbor is inspiring. But the tragic events that transpired are still a cold reminder that, under the Trump Administration, immigration enforcement agencies are doubling-down on callous policies and breaking long-held norms. Oliver-Bruno’s arrest was just the latest in a history of officers targeting immigrants coming in for scheduled USCIS interviews. Despite ICE’s own ‘Sensitive Locations’ policy, enforcement actions under the Trump Administration have been conducted by ICE agents outside of schools, at places of worship, soccer fields, and hospitals. They have also targeted activists and represented a “significant escalation” in courthouse arrests, despite judges and local leaders requesting otherwise.