For most of the past year, Samuel Oliver-Bruno stayed in the basement of a church in Durham, N.C., taking refuge against a deportation order that would separate him from his seriously ill wife, his son and the quiet life that he had lived in the United States off and on since 1994.
On the day after Thanksgiving, Oliver-Bruno, 47, ventured from his sanctuary at the CityWell United Methodist Church to keep an appointment at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) office in nearby Morrisville. He expected to fill out paperwork and leave his fingerprints, so he could move forward on his request for leniency that would allow him to remain in this country legally.
Friends and other members of the church accompanied him for protection. “We knew there was a risk, but honestly, deep down, we felt it would be a routine process,” says one of them, Ismael Ruiz-Millan, who heads the Hispanic initiative at Duke University’s Divinity School. It was a dilemma: Had Oliver-Bruno missed that appointment, Ruiz-Millan said, his case would have been dismissed.
But when he got there, agents for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) were waiting. They scuffled with Samuel-Bruno, tackling both him and his 19-year-old son to the ground, and put him in a van parked in back. His supporters surrounded the van, and 27 of them were arrested.
By Thursday night, Oliver-Bruno had been deported to Mexico -- under an order on which Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen personally signed off.
While President Trump continues to gin up outrage and fear over a caravan of destitute migrants at the Mexico border, his administration’s actions 2,500 miles away tell you more about what is wrong with this country’s immigration law. Both ICE, which arrested Oliver-Bruno, and USCIS, which he hoped would be his salvation, are arms of the Department of Homeland Security.
Oliver-Bruno has lived an exemplary life since originally coming to this country to do construction work more than 20 years ago. When his father got sick, he returned to Mexico, but his wife’s illness -- lupus, a serious autoimmune disease -- brought him back across the border in 2014.
That is when he committed the only crime of which he has been convicted. It was one of desperation. He was caught with a forged birth certificate.
Under the more lenient enforcement priorities of the Obama administration, which focused on deporting violent felons and multiple offenders, he was “paroled” into the United States -- that is, allowed to stay, under supervision. In the meantime, he found a new calling: the ministry, for which he has been studying in a non-degree program at Duke.
“I think God is calling me to do more,” he told Ruiz-Millan.
But in 2017, as Oliver-Bruno was applying at the USCIS office in Charlotte to extend the supervision order, he was told he would be deported, instead.
“It’s nothing about you,” an official told him, according to Ruiz-Milan. “It has to do with the new administration.”
That is how Oliver-Bruno found himself seeking refuge at CityWell. Churches are deemed “sensitive locations” by immigration authorities; since 2011, it has been government policy not to make arrests in them.
His cause has been taken up by the religious and immigrant-rights communities in North Carolina, as well as two of its Democratic House members, David E. Price and G.K. Butterfield. During the year Oliver-Bruno has spent in the church, Duke held his classes there, so his studies would not be interrupted. And on Tuesday, about 100 people braved frigid weather to hold a candlelight vigil for him outside an ICE office in Cary.
Meanwhile, the family he left behind faces a future that is uncertain -- particularly for his son, Daniel Oliver Perez, who finds himself the primary caregiver for his mother, even as he is trying to stay in college.
Before he was deported, Nielsen personally reviewed Oliver-Bruno’s case, including a medical assessment of his wife, Julia Perez Pacheco. Nielsen told Price that the deportation order would stand, according to a spokesman for the congressman.
“He received extensive appeals that were ultimately not successful,” said ICE spokesman Bryan Cox. “As a federal enforcement agency, we are tasked and our duty is to enforce the law.”
Oliver-Bruno’s situation is not all that unusual with the new standards of prosecutorial discretion that Trump has put in place, said his lawyer, Helen Parsonage, who took his case the day he was arrested. “It happens all the time. It’s standard operating procedure.”
All of which is true. But it speaks to the real problem. The law is one question, but how an administration chooses to apply it is another. And in the case of Samuel Oliver-Bruno, enforcement and justice have been revealed to be two very different things.