The space of Samuel Oliver-Bruno’s “home” while in sanctuary is filled with signs he thought he’d return from a biometrics appointment at U.S. Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS) in Morrisville, N.C., scheduled at the immigration control office’s request. His work on construction projects around the basement at the CityWell church in Durham, N.C., seems stalled in time. Painting supplies, clothes, other personal items stilled exactly as he left them, where he was working diligently just days before his life was altered irrevocably. A prayer room he helped to build is silent.
Almost exactly one year after he entered sanctuary at CityWell, that space Oliver-Bruno worked to turn into a home is now empty. On Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018, the federal government deported Oliver-Bruno to Mexico.
On Dec. 13, 2017, Samuel Oliver-Bruno and his wife Julia Perez-Pacheco made a difficult decision. Alongside their son, Daniel Oliver-Perez, now 19, Oliver-Bruno took sanctuary in CityWell Church in the Lakewood neighborhood of Durham, N.C., to avoid a deportation order. Perez-Pacheco spoke through tears at a press conference, saying of her husband, “I need Samuel at my side. Please do not deport him.”
On that day, the Oliver family shared that Perez-Pacheco’s lupus and heart condition make it hard for her to work, and that without Oliver-Bruno, a native of Mexico who had lived in this country for several decades, she would suffer greatly. “I am here in sanctuary because I want to fight for my family,” Oliver-Bruno said.
Over the course of nearly a year, Oliver-Bruno lived among the diverse community of CityWell, where he became a part of regular church functions. Oliver-Bruno prayed with people, did Bible studies, and attended worship services. While sanctuary was a last resort for him, Oliver-Bruno and the community formed a unique and reciprocal kinship.
“The ways Samuel contributes to our family and has formed us is really powerful. This is not the story of a church doing a really good thing for someone in distress,” Cleve May, one of the pastors of CityWell, told Sojourners. “This is the story of a person coming into a community and changing that community, even as that community is blessing that person.”
Crystal Des Vignes, another pastor on staff at CityWell, said Oliver-Bruno’s presence in sanctuary was one of the draws for her to take a position at the church last July.
“We can preach a good news,” she said. “But it’s another thing to live it. That was the clear example that this church was in all efforts trying to live out their faith.”
A skilled drywall contractor, Oliver-Bruno did an overhaul of the basement apartment where he, and often his family, would stay. He added new lights, raised a ceiling, and built and painted a wall to form a prayer room next door to another auxiliary roomed used for AA meetings. He was in the process of finishing a kitchen space and adding flooring and appliances.
“He brought his gifts to bear in ways that will literally mark our communal life as long as we are in that building,” May said.
A Rupture in Sanctuary
Before Oliver-Bruno’s biometrics appointment that would ultimately result in his deportation, Alerta Migratoria NC —an immigrant rights advocacy group — sent out a call via social media requesting that community members accompany him to the immigration office; Oliver-Bruno would leave sanctuary publicly for the first time in nearly a year.
“ICE is known for its rogue tactics and they may attempt to detain him,” the call said.
The same advocacy group posted a video in which Oliver-Bruno requested the help of the community: “As many people as possible. So that immigration can see the support I have from them.”
May says when Oliver-Bruno initially received the biometrics appointment, the sanctuary community was optimistic, thinking Oliver-Bruno’s case might be reconsidered. They also knew it could be a dangerous moment for him.
“Surely a public assembly of worship at an ICE location, a public demonstration, wouldn’t be a place that ICE would conduct a raid or a detention,” May told me.
While a previous ICE memo on sensitive locations has served as a protection for sanctuary, the Trump administration rescinded a memo on prosecutorial discretion, a practice that had essentially limited non-criminal deportations. With this change, ICE has begun deporting non-criminal undocumented immigration cases at a skyrocketing rate.
A large group of friends and community members showed up on the morning after Thanksgiving to accompany Oliver-Bruno to his appointment. When Oliver-Bruno entered the USCIS building with his son, May, and others, he was quickly detained by ICE agents.
“I heard the screaming,” said May, who was in the building as Oliver-Bruno was detained. May said an ICE agent was holding Daniel Oliver-Perez around the neck. “I’m 6 inches from his face and I’m yelling at the ICE agent, ‘I see you choking him!’” The scene was chaotic as Oliver-Bruno’s son was holding onto his father.
Agents then forcibly walked Oliver-Bruno to a van waiting outside. As they reached the van, community members were pushed off the doors, splayed left and right by a mix of police and ICE officers.
“I wasn’t letting go,” said Daniel Oliver-Perez of this moment at a later vigil. “If it wasn’t for me holding onto my dad, my dad could have been in the van in 10 seconds. Me holding onto him turned it into 5 minutes. During the 3 or 5 minutes, the entire congregation that was praying and worshiping outside went around the building.”
As Oliver-Bruno was placed in custody in a van with blackened windows, May and other supporters surrounded the van and refused to leave, singing hymns such as “Amazing Grace.”
“It was worship, the worship service never ended,” May said of the demonstration.
A total of 27 peaceful demonstrators were arrested, including Oliver-Bruno’s son. Oliver-Bruno was later transported to the Wake County Detention Center.
Standing Vigil, Confusion, and Calls to #FreeSamuel
Night and day after the breach of their sanctuary, the community rallied in support for Oliver-Bruno and his family. CityWell created a page where people could find ways to help.
They orchestrated several vigils and held a worship service outside ICE facilities in Cary, N.C., dispersing information as they received it through social media. Following Oliver-Bruno’s detention, the hashtag #FreeSamuel began to circulate and videos and photos of the arrests were seen throughout the country.
On the Monday after Oliver-Bruno’s detention, a peaceful worship service demonstration was planned at the Wake County Detention Center in Raleigh, N.C., where it was believed Oliver-Bruno had been held overnight. Immediately before the event began, CityWell staff learned of Samuel’s immediate relocation to a detention facility in Georgia. They didn’t know exactly where, but eventually were told through members of Congress that Oliver-Bruno was relocated to the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga.
Rev. Dr. William Barber II, who was attending the worship service, chastised the ICE officers and administrative officials who had made the arrest possible.
“This lying, this snatching up people and tearing people from their families – I don’t use this word often – is evil,” Barber said. “I speak to ICE, I speak to everybody. To participate in it, is to participate in evil.”
At a Nov. 27th vigil outside ICE facilities in Cary, N.C., Daniel Oliver-Perez addressed the crowd and spoke publicly for the first time about his experience. At one point, he described being in the same cell as his father while being shuffled through the jail where they were both being held.
“I spoke to my dad for 3 minutes. We were in the same room,” Oliver-Perez said. “He said, ‘What’s done is done. Let’s just focus on the future. Don’t ever lose your faith in God.’” After this they had a final hug, he said, and were separated.
Oliver-Perez described in a private Facebook message that in the six days following his father’s arrest by ICE, Oliver-Bruno was moved from detention center to detention center, all processes hidden from his son and wife who were desperately trying to locate him. When he traveled all the way to a detention center in Georgia with the express purpose of seeing his father, Oliver-Perez was told, once again, that his father had been moved.
Finally, on Nov. 29, after days of chasing the trail of ICE, USCIS, and the Department of Homeland Security, CityWell confirmed that after being taken from Georgia to Brownsville, Texas, Samuel Oliver-Bruno had in fact been deported to Matamoros, Mexico.
While much attention has turned to the border and caravan of asylum-seekers from Central America, Oliver-Bruno’s story of separation and deportation reveals yet another way that current policies are threatening the power of sanctuary and asylum. Moreover, some suspect that Oliver-Bruno’s particularly swift deportation process represents an effort to undermine the work of this movement.
Santuario Sin Fronteras
"Santuario no es el edificio. Santuario es la gente de la iglesia. Los hermanos y hermanas."
“Sanctuary is not the building. Sanctuary is the people of the church. The brothers and sisters.”
– Daniel Oliver-Perez, 19
The night of Oliver-Bruno’s deportation, in a private message group of sanctuary supporters, a rapid-response support network was forming to reach Oliver-Bruno in Mexico, extending sanctuary beyond the borders of a church, a community, and a country.
Several United Methodist pastors accompanied the son on his journey to reunite with his father. In a photo posted by Edgar A. Vergara Millán, one can see a group of men, including Samuel Oliver-Bruno, Daniel Oliver-Perez, and several other Methodist pastors from both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border at their side.
In Oliver-Perez’s own public Facebook post about being reunited with his father in Mexico, he said, “This is not the end of the story trust me god has plans for me and my family I believe in Jesus Christ and I know that my family will soon be reunited.”
Reunited with Oliver-Bruno in Mexico, Oliver-Perez and May brought him the insulin they say he was denied by ICE during his deportation, and his precious leather-bound Bible.
As Oliver-Bruno’s family and community gather themselves after a speedy deportation process, “Sanctuary Without Borders” has become their unifying cry.
For churches discerning if sanctuary is an action they should take, Jesse Huddleston, worship pastor at CityWell, says to look around them. Sanctuary, he says, came about through CityWell looking at their own community and seeing the need.
“It may not be sanctuary for everyone,” Huddleston says. “There’s plenty to be done. Think critically about how to be the Good Samaritan to your own community.”
For Des Vignes at CityWell, the work of sanctuary is a sign of her congregation’s love for Oliver-Bruno. She says the church has received criticism from people quoting scripture about submission to governing authorities.
“The laws of the land can be wrong. But God’s law says to love,” Des Vignes said. “There is no law against love, and that is what we have been doing for our brother Samuel and his family.”
While a rupture of sanctuary occurred in the CityWell community, there are still four other people in sanctuary in North Carolina and an estimated 50 public cases across the United States. Juana Tobar, for example, will spend her second Christmas in a row in sanctuary at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Greensboro, N.C., after 18 long months of living in the church.
“Because I’m in the same position as brother Samuel,” Tobar said, “and even more so because of the way he was tricked, that makes us very fearful.”