UPDATE, November 30, 8:10 a.m.: Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported Samuel Oliver-Bruno from the United States to Mexico on Thursday evening.
UPDATE, November 27, 8:00 a.m.: On Monday night, U.S. Reps. Price and Butterfield announced that USCIS had denied Samuel Oliver-Bruno’s appeal for deferred action and that ICE “intends to immediately move forward with [his] deportation to Mexico.” The representatives have called on Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to reverse Oliver-Bruno’s order of removal.
The day after Thanksgiving, federal immigration agents in plainclothes tackled a North Carolina man to the ground in front of his son before throwing him into the back of a waiting car.
Advocates are calling what happened to Samuel Oliver-Bruno—who is known as one of several sanctuary leaders across the country—”a kidnapping.”
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Bruno had been in sanctuary at CityWell United Methodist Church in Durham, North Carolina, for 11 months when he left the grounds of the church on Friday with a large group of supporters to attend what should have been a routine biometrics appointment at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) office in Morrisville, North Carolina.
Submitting biometrics is the next step in petitioning for deferred action, an immigration benefit that would have given Bruno a temporary reprieve from detention and deportation. He sought sanctuary last December after receiving an order for deportation.
Oliver-Bruno has been in the United States for more than 20 years, but briefly returned to Mexico before he was detained in 2014 while attempting to re-enter the country to reunite with his wife after she had open heart surgery due to complications from lupus. He eventually received a stay of removal after presenting his wife’s medical records during court proceedings, the Herald Sun reported.
While in sanctuary, the undocumented husband and father began the process of petitioning for deferred action with legal help from Duke University law students and with the support of Democratic U.S. Reps. David Price and G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina, both of whom sent a letter to USCIS on November 1 requesting deferred action for Oliver-Bruno and asking officials to use prosecutorial discretion in his case based on humanitarian conditions.
Following his arrest over the holiday weekend, advocates claim Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) worked with USCIS to lure Oliver-Bruno out of his sanctuary church to quickly detain and deport him. Reps. Price and Butterfield also said it appeared as if ICE “acted in concert with officials at USCIS” in a joint statement condemning the federal agency’s actions.
“At best, Mr. Oliver-Bruno was presented with a catch-22 dilemma; at worst, he was entrapped,” the statement reads. “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.”
Legal advocates working on Oliver-Bruno’s case suspected that ICE might take him into custody at his appointment and sought to prevent it. In a November 20 email exchange obtained by Rewire.News, a Duke University law student working with Oliver-Bruno on his deferred action application wrote USCIS’ Raleigh-Durham field office director, Jay R. Weselmann, informing him that advocates were concerned that ICE would attempt to detain the sanctuary leader if he left his church. The student asked Weselmann if there were any alternatives to an office visit that would satisfy the biometrics requirement.
“Given the sensitive nature of Mr. Oliver-Bruno’s application, would USCIS be able to accommodate an alternative to an in-office biometrics appointment?” the student wrote. A few hours later, Weselmann wrote back, “This situation does not satisfy the requirements for a mobile fingerprint appointment. Biometrics are a requirement for the adjudication of a deferred action request.”
In response to questions about whether USCIS notified ICE of Oliver-Bruno’s appointment, USCIS spokesperson Michael Bars did not comment on the specifics of the case, citing “pending litigation.” The spokesperson added, “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 request.” The agency did not respond to Rewire.News’ request for clarification on whether this statement was intended to imply that Bruno’s petition for deferred action and scheduled appointment didn’t qualify as a pending appeal.
In an email to Rewire.News, ICE spokesperson Bryan Cox said the agency only became aware the sanctuary leader was leaving his church because “his supporters publicly announced it days in advance.” Echoing USCIS’ statement, Cox said that Oliver-Bruno “already received all appropriate legal process under federal law and had no outstanding appeals” and that “any suggestion the arrest prevented him from obtaining lawful immigration status would be false.”
Katherine Guerrero, the former sanctuary coordinator at CityWell who helped transition the church into a sanctuary for Oliver-Bruno, told Rewire.News the suggestion that Oliver-Bruno’s case was not active was “worrisome.”
For almost all of Oliver-Bruno’s 11 months at CityWell, Guerrero assisted with all aspects of his case. “I know his deferred action has been in the works for months. I’ve seen the paperwork with my own eyes. We had been on the lookout for that biometrics notice. I saw it, we all did. That is why he left the church, he wouldn’t have left the church and delivered himself to USCIS if he didn’t have to. He was told this is what he had to do to keep his case moving forward,” said Guerrero, who is currently assisting the immigrant-led grassroots organization Alerta Migratoria NC with Oliver-Bruno’s case.
Guerrero characterized Friday’s events as “traumatic,” both for Oliver-Bruno’s family and for the immigrant community in North Carolina who watched the sanctuary leader’s “violent detainment” unfold.
On Thanksgiving, Guerrero and Alerta Migratoria co-founder Viridiana Martinez walked Oliver-Bruno through all of the possible outcomes of Friday’s appointment at USCIS, including detainment. According to Guerrero, Oliver-Bruno was aware of the risks and “very grounded in prayer.”
“He was trusting, but fearful,” she said.
Guerrero said that Oliver-Bruno wasn’t inside USCIS for more than five minutes before the agents tackled him to the ground in front of his son and Pastor Cleve May, who was later arrested by Morrisville Police officers. Guerrero waited outside with the sanctuary leader’s supporters as some peered inside through the glass and filmed what transpired. Guerrero said that for “personal reasons related to trauma,” she could not look, but knew her “worst fear” had been confirmed when she heard Oliver-Bruno’s supporters screaming.
Members of the church attempted to peacefully appeal to ICE agents, who can be seen in a video roughly shoving people. Guerrero said it did little to move agents.
“It was like talking to robots,” she said. “Members of the church were saying, ‘How could you do this?’ and, ‘What would you do if this was your family?’ but they couldn’t reach them. I don’t know if they’re trained to be this way, but their response was shocking and hard to watch. [Agents] would shove people and say, ‘I don’t care.’”
As Oliver-Bruno’s supporters surrounded an ICE agents’ car, Guerrero largely spent her time attempting to comfort Oliver-Bruno’s wife, whom she said was shaking and crying. She said she also personally witnessed an ICE agent “provoking” Oliver-Bruno’s 19-year-old son Daniel, “in a way, instigating him and taunting him” by following him wherever he went and preventing him from saying goodbye to his father. This would be the same ICE agent the agency would accuse Daniel of “assaulting” upon his arrest.
Ultimately, 27 people were arrested by Morrisville Police Officers and Wake County Sheriffs Friday after protesters surrounded ICE’s vehicle for nearly three hours.
Cox told Rewire.News that Wake County officers arrested Daniel for “assaulting an ICE officer.” A public information officer with Wake County told Rewire.News Friday that they don’t “have any report on this,” while a public information officer for Morrisville Police said they did not arrest Daniel. The spokesperson said, “Wake County Sheriff made the arrest.”
“Morrisville Police Officers, in effort to de-escalate the situation and negotiate a peaceful resolution, began the process of communicating with identified leaders within the crowd of people. The crowd, although peaceful, refused to allow the passage of the ICE vehicle,” according to a statement from Morrisville Police. “The Morrisville Police Department did not participate in the active arrest of Mr. Samuel Oliver-Bruno. Officers were called to the scene after the initial arrest had been made. The Morrisville Police Department did not have prior knowledge of plans to arrest Mr. Oliver-Bruno.”
Daniel was released from custody later in the day on Friday.
A Man of Great Faith
Before his detainment at the USCIS office Friday, Oliver-Bruno had only left sanctuary to attend a convening in Durham, North Carolina, of people in sanctuary who were taking part in the nationwide coalition Colectivo Santuario. At the convening, he and other sanctuary leaders learned strategies for developing their own deportation defense campaigns.
In August, Oliver-Bruno told Rewire.News he was aware of the risks associated with leaving his church and that it could have “harsh consequences.” He also said that under the Trump administration, there is no telling what ICE will do. “It’s hard to know what to expect when they can do anything,” Oliver-Bruno said.
Oliver-Bruno was detained at the Wake County Detention Center over the holiday weekend, but early Monday morning immigration authorities transferred him to the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia.
According to Reps. Price and Butterfield, “ICE has committed to allow Oliver-Bruno to remain in the U.S. in detention while his case is adjudicated.” However, a transfer to Georgia removes Oliver-Bruno from his community, his support network, legal help, and most significantly, his family.
Oliver-Bruno’s wife, Julia Perez Pacheco, has lupus, a severe chronic illness, and Oliver-Bruno has been the sole provider for his family and Perez Pacheco’s primary source of support. Since Oliver-Bruno has been in sanctuary, Perez Pacheco said her illness has gotten worse. In a previous interview with Rewire.News, Oliver-Bruno said he wanted people to understand that leaving the United States was not an option because of the health of his wife, and that his deportation would “literally leave her dead.”
In August, Oliver-Bruno told Rewire.News his belief in God gives him the strength to carry on. Still, he feared for his future. In the days leading up to his biometrics appointment, Oliver-Bruno made several public pleas asking for support at USCIS. A community member captured the sanctuary leader’s final moments before being violently tackled by undercover ICE agents. In a video posted on Facebook, Oliver-Bruno can be seen thanking his family and his community and then leading the crowd in a prayer.
Guerrero said she fears that in the coming days and weeks, Oliver-Bruno’s story will be forgotten, treated as just another detainment under the Trump administration. She urges supporters to continue pressuring elected officials to intervene on Oliver-Bruno’s behalf, as his transfer to Georgia is not a good sign for his case. She also wants people to understand “the great love” Oliver-Bruno has for his family.
About a month ago, Oliver-Bruno shared with Guerrero that because his wife has lupus, they struggled to conceive a child. When she became pregnant with Daniel, he considered it a miracle and ever since has called Daniel his “miracle child” and a “gift from God.”
“ICE will push the perspective that Samuel is a criminal because he violated the law, but I want to remind people that he crossed the border because he desperately wanted to be with his wife, who just had heart surgery. He has such tremendous love for his wife and son and has shown again and again that he is willing to sacrifice anything to be with them—and he continues to do that,” Guerrero said.
“Samuel has taught me that you have to trust beyond what you can see. His faith is so big, even against all odds. Because of that I am hopeful he will be released. I hope he feels that God is near him and that he is not alone. I hope that God is providing him with peace. That is my prayer for him in detention.”
CORRECTION: This piece has been updated to clarify Oliver-Bruno is at the Stewart Detention Center, not the Irwin County Detention Center.