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Feds deport undocumented immigrant whose church supporters went to jail to protect him

Churchgoers and community members surround an Immigration and Customs Enforcement van after the arrest of Samuel Oliver-Bruno on Nov. 23 in Morrisville, N.C. (Travis Long/News & Observer/AP)

Samuel Oliver-Bruno, an undocumented immigrant who took refuge in the basement of a North Carolina church for 11 months, and whose fellow congregants were jailed after trying to block immigration authorities from arresting him, has been deported, his church said Thursday night.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement confirmed he had been deported to Mexico around 9 p.m. Thursday in statements to local news media.

“Samuel’s family, church community, and supporting neighbors are grieved at Samuel being ripped from his family, church and community,” the CityWell United Methodist Church, based in Durham, N.C., said in a statement. “Many among family and friends are traumatized by the violence employed by ICE in this detainment and deportation operation.”

Oliver-Bruno’s arrest last Friday at a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office in Morrisville, N.C., drew wide attention for both the manner in which ICE arrested him and for the nearly three-hour standoff waged by his church and other supporters in the parking lot.

Two dozen congregants from CityWell formed a caravan to take Oliver-Bruno to the USCIS office, his first time leaving the church since he was ordered deported last November. When they arrived, dozens of other supporters were waiting.

So was ICE.

Minutes after Oliver-Bruno went inside for his scheduled appointment, which was part of the process for seeking a deportation reprieve, ICE officers tackled him and his 19-year-old son to the ground. The son was later charged with assaulting a government official while trying to prevent authorities from arresting his father.

In the parking lot, dozens of supporters surrounded ICE’s unmarked Dodge minivan, where agents had taken Oliver-Bruno. Some were crying, others were yelling at the agents. They remained standing around the van for nearly three hours, praying and singing “Amazing Grace” and “We Shall Not Be Moved,” the civil rights movement anthem. CityWell Pastor Cleve May told The Washington Post that the idea was to re-create the sanctuary they had offered Oliver-Bruno at their church.

But their protest would only last so long. Eventually, at least 27 people were arrested for obstruction, including May, according to the Morrisville Police Department.

“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 told The Post on Sunday.

Oliver-Bruno first came to the United States in 1994 to live and work in Greenville, N.C. His wife, Julia, who has lupus, a serious autoimmune disease, gave birth to their son in 1999. They decided to return to Mexico in 2011 because Oliver-Bruno’s father was in poor health, according to his church.

They traveled back across the border illegally in 2013 to seek better medical care for Julia’s lupus after she started coughing up blood, May said. Crossing the border months ahead of Oliver-Bruno, she underwent heart surgery upon her arrival in Greenville. Oliver-Bruno, however, was arrested and convicted of attempting to enter the country with fraudulent documents when he tried to return in 2014, the only blemish on his criminal record.

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.

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.

The arrest also drew the ire of North Carolina Democratic Reps. David E. Price and G.K. Butterfield, who asked USCIS to approve Oliver-Bruno’s application for deferred action on the deportation both because of his wife’s serious illness and because of his clean track record. On Monday they had also “secured a commitment from ICE not to deport Oliver-Bruno until his deferment claims is heard,” Price said. ICE confirmed the agreement.

The status of his deferred action application was not immediately clear late Thursday night. An ICE spokesman could not immediately be reached for comment.

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