Last month, Samuel Oliver-Bruno was summoned to the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) support center in Morrisville, North Carolina. After living in the United States for more than two decades, the 47-year-old drywall installer was going through an administrative process to try to remain in the country. This visit was supposed to be for fingerprinting, a routine step toward a possible reprieve known as “deferred deportation.” Instead, he walked into a government ambush that advocates say has become increasingly familiar.
Oliver-Bruno had a pressing reason to stay. His wife, Julia Pérez Pacheco, has lupus and a heart condition that require ongoing medical attention. The couple had returned to Mexico in 2011 to care for Oliver-Bruno’s ill father, but discovered that Pérez couldn’t get the care she needed there. “Basically, what the doctors suggested was, ‘Just go to your house and rest,’” says the Reverend Ismael Ruiz-Millán, the couple’s former pastor. With her health failing, Pérez returned to North Carolina and received open-heart surgery that supporters say saved her life.
“That’s when he decided he needed to come,” says Ruiz-Millán. “He knew the urgency of being back in the States to take care of her.” At the border in 2014, Oliver-Bruno was caught using someone else’s US birth certificate. But his wife’s illness garnered him a release from detention and a temporary work permit. Back in North Carolina, his faith deepened, and he eventually enrolled in a training program for aspiring Latinx ministers at Duke University’s Divinity School.
Then, in 2017, the US government rescinded Oliver-Bruno’s permission to stay. “It’s nothing you did,” a USCIS employee told him, according to his pastor. “It has to do with the new administration.”
Under federal policy, churches are considered “sensitive locations” of which US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) generally steers clear. To protect Oliver-Bruno, Durham’s CityWell United Methodist Church invited him to live in its basement until his case was resolved. He remained on church property for 11 months, sleeping in a converted storage room and worshipping with the multiracial congregation. Meanwhile, the city’s two US congressmen, Democrats G.K. Butterfield and David Price, asked USCIS to let Oliver-Bruno remain in North Carolina out of “humanitarian considerations.”
When the day arrived for his fingerprinting, dozens of Durhamites—CityWell members and others—converged on the Morrisville office to show their support. By re-assembling as a congregation, they believed, they were extending sanctuary beyond the church’s walls. “We knew, at any point, ICE could try to seize him,” says Jesse Huddleston, CityWell’s worship director. But not at his fingerprinting, and not on the day after Thanksgiving. “The expectation was, OK, this will be an hour or so of gathering in prayers. He’s going to do what he needs to do; he’ll come out; and we’ll come back home and finish some turkey.”
As Oliver-Bruno entered the USCIS office, his supporters remained in the parking lot and sang “Ven, Espíritu Ven” (“Come, Holy Spirit, Come”). “Then suddenly, in the middle of the song,” says Ruiz-Millán, “we started hearing these screams saying, ‘No, no, no!’”
According to the Reverend Cleve May, a CityWell pastor who was inside the building, non-uniformed ICE agents tackled Oliver-Bruno, arrested him, and took him out the back door, where a minivan waited. May says Oliver-Bruno’s 19-year-old son, Daniel, tried to hold on to his father, and he, too, was thrown to the ground and later arrested. ICE spokesman Bryan Cox says agents used “the minimum amount of force necessary” and that the son attacked an officer.
Supporters ran to the van to block it from leaving. Ruiz-Millán stayed behind with Oliver-Bruno’s wife. “She was broken,” he says. “We were afraid that she could have a heart attack because of her condition. She was screaming, and her skin—you could see that she was not doing well.”
ICE held Oliver-Bruno on US soil, Cox says, until USCIS formally rejected his application for a reprieve. Then he was transported to Matamoros, a violent Mexican border city in which he knew no one.
At best, the North Carolina congressmen said in a statement, Oliver-Bruno “was presented with a catch-22 dilemma”: By complying with one agency’s directive, he was exposing himself to arrest and deportation by another. That, according to advocates, has become the new normal under President Donald Trump’s unforgiving deportation policy.
“One hand of the government is inviting people to come out and to regularize their status,” says Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. “And then, when they show up, they get nabbed.”
Rose’s organization, which has filed a class-action lawsuit against the federal government, identified 17 undocumented immigrants who showed up at New England USCIS offices in 2018 to help verify that their marriages to US citizens were legitimate, and were then arrested by ICE. The lead plaintiff, Lilian Calderon, is a Guatemalan-born Rhode Islander who came to the United States when she was 3 years old. In 2016 she applied for permanent residence under Obama-era regulations streamlining the process for citizens’ family members. (She is currently home with husband and their two children; the lawsuit is ongoing.)
“It’s particularly egregious that the Trump administration is using the regulations that were put in place to protect people to instead detain and deport them, and to separate families,” Rose says.
During the discovery process, the ACLU unearthed a trove of e-mails confirming that USCIS and ICE coordinated the arrests. USCIS scheduled the marriage-verification interviews at times convenient for ICE agents—spacing them apart, according to one ICE e-mail, so as not “to be a trigger for negative media interest.” In another message, an ICE official made a special request: “We are hoping to have two officers at your office but are getting a late start. Would it be possible to delay the interview by about fifteen minutes?”
USCIS says it does not comment on pending litigation. ICE spokesman Cox says his agency did not coordinate Oliver-Bruno’s arrest with USCIS; it learned about his fingerprinting appointment from Facebook. Cox, who covers the Southern region, says he is unaware of coordination between the agencies. He defends the idea nonetheless. “We are both entities in the Department of Homeland Security,” he says. “There’s a certain amount of information-sharing that takes place in the federal government. I would describe it as appropriate and lawful.”
The ACLU disagrees; its lawsuit accuses the government of violating the Constitution’s due process and equal-protection clauses. “It’s not constitutional,” says Rose. “And it’s also just wrong.”
Robust deportation tactics did not begin with Trump. “Unfortunately, the Obama administration was the architect of many of our processes,” says Durham City Council member Javiera Caballero, who has been involved in immigration issues for many years. “Now, what we’re seeing is it going on steroids—using white-supremacist language and nationalistic language to go the next step.” (Trump has called Mexican immigrants “rapists” and frequently invokes MS-13, the street gang founded by Salvadoran-Americans in the late 20th century.) Whereas President Barack Obama, for much of his tenure, focused on deporting serious criminals, Trump issued an executive order in January 2017 considerably widening ICE’s authority. That has opened the door, advocates say, to a new level of aggression.
News reports have told the stories of immigrants across the country who were arrested during routine check-ins with ICE, and later deported: a Kansas construction worker who was the sole financial supporter of a son with a bone disease; an Arizona woman who had lived in the United States since she was 14; a Texas man whose family received temporary protected status in the United States when he was 15 because of the 2001 earthquakes in El Salvador.
Just as immigrants are newly vulnerable when they visit USCIS and ICE offices, that vulnerability also extends to courthouses, which are not considered “sensitive locations.” In a report released at the end of last year, the Immigrant Defense Project counted 144 arrests and attempted arrests in New York State court buildings in 2017, compared to eleven in 2016. Twenty-eight percent of those targets had no prior criminal history. Many were appearing for traffic violations. In April, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order banning immigration arrests in state-run buildings without judicial authorization.
Even crime victims are at risk: In El Paso last year, a domestic-violence survivor with a criminal record was arrested by ICE immediately after receiving a protective order. County Attorney Jo Anne Bernal told local reporters that ICE might have been tipped off by the abuser.
Legal experts nationwide worry that ICE’s presence will deter victims, defendants, family members, and witnesses from coming to court. Last year Tani Cantil-Sakauye, California’s chief justice, wrote to federal officials about reports of agents’ “stalking” immigrants in judicial buildings. “I am concerned about the impact on public trust and confidence,” she explained. “Courthouses should not be used as bait in the necessary enforcement of our country’s immigration laws.”
Last Sunday morning in Durham, there was an empty seat at CityWell—fourth row, aisle—where Samuel Oliver-Bruno used to sit. He was present, though, in the form of a video message from Mexico. Facing the congregation from two flat-screen monitors, Oliver-Bruno wore a gray T-shirt and sat tightly against his son, who had flown down from North Carolina. Daniel translated as his father described the trip to Matamoros, where he was met by a Methodist pastor who helped him reunite with his son. “Everywhere I was, in every detention center, I was communicating with God,” he said.
When the video ended abruptly, the Reverend Crystal DesVignes picked up the microphone. She described the spontaneous human blockade that formed around the ICE van after Oliver-Bruno’s arrest. For about two hours, supporters sang and prayed until Morrisville police arrested 27 protesters. “You saw and stood, and stood, and sang the songs of Zion, surrounding with your bodies—the incarnational representation of this sanctuary,” DesVignes said. “This community saw the body of Christ do more than talk, but get up and act.”
It was the first Sunday of Advent: a time to anticipate the second coming of Christ. Earlier in the service, a mother and three kids had come to the front of the room. The congregation grew quiet, except for the squeals of other children playing. “Advent time is both a time of hope and lament,” read the mother, Carlye Daugird, who had led the singing of “Ven, Espíritu Ven” in Morrisville. “Hope that the oppression, violence, sadness, and fear that exists all around us will one day cease. And lament that that day has not come yet.”