North Carolina

A Church's Dramatic Attempt to Stop a Deportation Reflects the Crackdown on Sanctuaries

CityWell United Methodist Church sheltered an undocumented immigrant until they said he was lured to an immigration office under false pretenses.


|||Screenshot via Facebook/Cleve May
Screenshot via Facebook/Cleve May

Members of a North Carolina church were the latest to clash with the federal government over immigration policies. During the holiday weekend, an immigration appointment ended with the arrest of an undocumented immigrant in the church's care as well as the arrest of several members.

CityWell United Methodist Church in Durham sheltered undocumented immigrant Samuel Oliver-Bruno in a former Sunday school classroom for 11 months. The 47-year-old is married to an American citizen and has a 19-year-old son, who is also a citizen. On Friday, Oliver-Bruno had an appointment at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) office in Morrisville. Oliver-Bruno was expected to give his fingerprints and discuss a petition to legally delay his upcoming deportation via a deferred action status. Members accompanied Oliver-Bruno to his appointment, fearing entrapment.

Their fears proved correct. After walking in with his son, his attorney, and the church's pastor, plainclothes Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents predictably swooped in to arrest Oliver-Bruno.

The church members moved to surround a van where officials had taken Oliver-Bruno. They chanted, "Let him stay," sang "Amazing Grace," and prayed. The Morrisville Police Department released a statement saying that it arrested 27 people for obstruction after they did not follow "two orders to disperse." (The members were aware that their actions could lead to arrest.) Included among those arrested was Oliver-Bruno's son.

CityWell Pastor Cleve May argued that ICE "exploited" Oliver-Bruno's due process by arresting him while he complied with the legal guidelines to delay his deportation. May also believed that the USCIS meeting, which was legally required for Oliver-Bruno's petition, was a trap.

"It was presented as a legitimate appointment but ICE utilized due process as bait," he told CNN.

North Carolina Congressmen David Price and G.K. Butterfield, both Democrats, released a statement that also said Oliver-Bruno was "entrapped." They have since requested deferred action from deportation on his behalf and are seeking prosecutorial discretion in his case.

CityWell is one of many houses of worship that have stepped up to combat harsh immigration policies. As Reason's Shikha Dalmia reported in February, sanctuary churches have enjoyed a special privilege from ICE when it comes to shielding immigrants. An internal administrative bars government agents from entering "sensitive locations," like places of worship and hospitals, to arrest immigrants. In fact, the deep cultural respect for these places have made them more reliable for immigrants than sanctuary cities. Additionally, ICE agents have even used some of these locations to house asylum seekers when they do not have room.

Despite this decades-long understanding, however, the Trump administration has quietly begun pushing back on sensitive locations. Dalmia's report listed several instances of agents stalking immigrants in order to arrest them once they left their sanctuaries. In one case, ICE agents shadowed parents at a hospital who were seeking care of their 2-month-old infant, who was born in America. Agents even watched the mother as she breastfed. Deportation proceedings soon followed.

The actions taken against Oliver-Bruno can only deter immigrants from complying in good faith with government requirements.