“Who’s willing to get arrested if it comes down to that?” Pastor Cleve May asked two dozen members of his congregation in the parking lot at CityWell United Methodist Church early Friday morning.
Hands shot up without hesitation. The congregants were preparing a sort of migrant caravan of their own, shuttling a single Mexican immigrant on a 15-mile journey from the church in Durham, N.C., to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office in Morrisville. The undocumented immigrant, Samuel Oliver-Bruno, had an appointment.
It was supposed to be routine, just a fingerprint — a step on the road to a deportation reprieve. Oliver-Bruno, a 47-year-old father to a U.S.-citizen son, had been living in a Sunday-school classroom in the church basement for the past 11 months, a refuge where immigration authorities couldn’t arrest him. His appointment with USCIS would mark the first time he stepped beyond the church property line since then, and what seemed like half his church went with him because, May said, “we don’t really believe that sanctuary is just a building.”
“The sanctuary went with Samuel to this office,” he told The Washington Post. “We were going to go in this office together.”
At about 8:45 a.m., the caravan arrived at the office, where nearly 100 other people had already gathered, May said. They prayed in the parking lot, and as Oliver-Bruno went inside with his son, his attorney and his pastor, the group started singing a Spanish hymn right outside the door.
It didn’t last long. Two minutes later, they traded the singing for screaming.
“No! They’re arresting him!” one woman yelled.
The congregants and other supporters began banging on the glass windows and doors, yelling as they watched U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers in plainclothes tackle Oliver-Bruno and his son to the ground in the waiting room. The son wouldn’t let go as officers began dragging his dad toward a back door — and the dozens of gatherers followed, sprinting around the corner to meet the agents.
That marked the beginning of a nearly three-hour standoff with ICE, during which the congregants and other community members sought to physically block the arrest of Oliver-Bruno by surrounding a government van and refusing to move, singing “Amazing Grace” and chanting, “Let your people go!” The stakes for Oliver-Bruno, whose wife suffers from lupus, were too high to step away, May said.
“We told the police chief, ‘We understand this is your job, but we need you to understand that as a matter of conviction we cannot move, and you will have to arrest us,’ ” May recounted.
A total of 27 people were arrested, including May and Oliver-Bruno’s son, the Morrisville Police Department said. Daniel Oliver-Perez, 19, faces charges of assaulting a government official, for the skirmish during which he attempted to prevent officers from arresting his dad.
In a joint statement, Democratic Reps. David E. Price and G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina said they were “alarmed” by the manner in which Oliver-Bruno was arrested, describing it as entrapment “at worst” and a “catch-22 dilemma” at best, saying USCIS appeared to “act in concert” with ICE. They asked USCIS to grant Oliver-Bruno deferred action on the deportation, saying his “wife and U.S. citizen son would suffer greatly if Mr. Oliver-Bruno is removed from the country.”
USCIS spokesman Michael Bars later said in a statement: “As a matter of policy, USCIS is unable to comment on specific cases related to pending litigation. Importantly, however, the agency does not schedule an appointment at our Application Support Centers for an applicant who does not have a pending immigration benefit application or other request. USCIS is committed to adjudicating all petitions, applications and requests fairly, efficiently, and effectively on a case-by-case basis to determine if they meet all standards required under applicable law, policies, and regulations.”
May said the church opened its doors to Oliver-Bruno last December under the decades-old church sanctuary program, in which congregations across the country offer to provide refuge to immigrants facing deportation. The congregation at CityWell United Methodist Church tried to make the former Sunday-school classroom homey for Oliver-Bruno, bringing him an air mattress, nightstand, TV and lamp.
But while they called it a sanctuary, May said, they also knew it was like being on house arrest. Oliver-Bruno didn’t leave to watch his son graduate from high school. He didn’t leave to accompany his wife to the doctor, or to run an errand or see a movie. He just stayed at church, leading a Bible study in Spanish and sometimes playing in the church band.
“He became very intimately a part of who we are as a congregation. It was a really beautiful thing in a lot of ways, but also a really tragic thing,” May said. “It was never far from anyone’s mind, and it was often on our lips, that Samuel was experiencing a very cruel form of house arrest, almost in isolation.”
Oliver-Bruno first came to the United States in 1994 to live and work in Greenville, N.C., and lived there with his wife, Julia, who had lupus, a serious autoimmune disease. In 2011, they decided to return to Mexico because Oliver-Bruno’s parents' health was failing, according to his church. (May said the family was declining interview requests for the time being.)
But the lupus was a problem. Doctors in Mexico were no match for those in Greenville, who had treated and monitored Julia’s illness. Three years after arriving back in Mexico, they knew it was time to make the journey back over the border illegally when she started coughing up blood, May said. This time, however, Oliver-Bruno was arrested and convicted of attempting to enter the country with fraudulent documents.
In a statement, ICE spokesman Bryan Cox told the Raleigh News & Observer that authorities decided he could stay in the country under an order of supervision. May said he was allowed to stay because of Julia’s failing health: Crossing the border months ahead of Oliver-Bruno, she underwent heart surgery upon her arrival in Greenville.
Oliver-Bruno’s reprieve and supervision order lasted until November 2017, when it was revoked and he was ordered removed.
“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 told the News & Observer, explaining why Oliver-Bruno was arrested.
Back in the USCIS parking lot Friday, the ICE agents were trying to tell the crowd to quiet down, competing for a chance to speak over chants of “Shame!” By then, protesters had fully surrounded the ICE vehicle, an unmarked minivan.
“Listen up!” yelled an agent who identified himself as an assistant field officer. “The only way this is going to go down is this way: He’s been ordered removed from the United States. That’s it. I know the law, okay? So what we’re going to do now — you’ve got to disperse."
The singing in Spanish began again.
“Step back!” he said to a woman wailing on the hood of the van.
She didn’t move.
“You have the discretion, sir,” a man yelled to the officer. “You have the power, sir. There’s a higher law, sir.”
Eventually the agent stepped out of the crowd’s center, and the police arrived, watching on the outskirts as the people again broke into song. They sang the civil rights anthem “We Shall Not Be Moved,” invoking Samuel’s name, and then “Amazing Grace,” extending their hands toward the van, where Oliver-Bruno and two ICE agents were listening. The crowd alternated between silence and singing and prayer, sniffling and sometimes crying out.
“His only crime was wanting to take care of his family!” one woman yelled.
By the end, nearly 30 people remained when police placed them under arrest for obstruction. They were booked into the Wake County Detention Center with Oliver-Bruno.