For the last eleven months, Samuel Oliver-Bruno has been living in the basement of CityWell United Methodist Church in Durham, North Carolina, claiming sanctuary to avoid arrest while he looked after his wife, who has lupus, and his son, who is American-born. But when he left CityWell for the first time to visit U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and get a fingerprint — supposedly the first step in getting a reprieve from deportation — nearly has his church went with him because, as a fellow congregant told the Washington Post, “we don’t really believe that sanctuary is just a building.”
Oliver-Bruno was grateful for the company, which became nearly a hundred people by the time he arrived at USCIS. They waited in the parking lot while Oliver-Bruno himself went inside, but that’s when things went awry, as church members witnessed ICE officials tacking Oliver-Bruno and his son. The son reportedly refused to let go of his father as officials began dragging him outside towards a van.
What followed was nearly a three-hour standoff, in which church members refused to let ICE pass with Oliver-Bruno in tow. They physically blocked the van with their bodies, joining hands and singing “Amazing Grace.”
Church members captured video of some of the incident. They are initially waiting outside, singing a Spanish hymn while they wait for Oliver-Bruno, but you can see chaos ensue around the 6:30 mark, when a few people witness plainclothes ICE agents tackle Oliver-Bruno.
“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,’ ” Pastor Cleve May recounted. ICE officials obliged, arresting 27 of them, including Oliver-Bruno’s son.
Oliver-Bruno and his wife first entered the U.S. in 1994, and lived here until 2011 when they decided to return to Mexico to be with his parents as their health declined. But once back across the border, his wife’s illness worsened. Once she started coughing up blood, the couple realized that her best chance was to return to the doctors in the U.S. who had treated her before they left. But they were caught attempting to cross the border without documentation in 2014, and though officials at the time allowed them to stay under supervision, the reprieve was ended in November of 2017, at which point they went into sanctuary at CityWell following Mrs. Oliver-Bruno’s heart surgery.
“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.”
“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.,” ICE spokesman Bryan Cox told the News & Observer.