Immigration officials expected Samuel Oliver-Bruno to return to Mexico, his country of origin, on Sunday.
Instead, Oliver-Bruno packed his bags, left his home in Greenville, N.C. and moved into Durham’s CityWell United Methodist Church.
The church became the fifth worship house in the Triangle sheltering a person who is fighting a deportation order, part of the growing faith-based sanctuary movement in North Carolina.
Sanctuary provides a person with a place to sleep, eat and bathe beyond the reach of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Two other men are living in sanctuary in the Triangle: Jose Chicas moved into the School for Conversion in Durham in July and Eliseo Jimenez at Umstead Park United Church of Christ in Raleigh in October.
Juana Ortega has been living in St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Greensboro since May 28.
Also in Greensboro, another woman, Minerva Garcia, moved into Congregational United Chruch of Christ with her two youngest sons in late July. They left in October after ICE canceled her deportation order.
The rise of the sanctuary movement in North Carolina coincides with an increase in deportations nationwide.
In January, President Trump signed an executive order to prioritize the deportation of all people who have entered the country illegally — not just those with criminal convictions, as the Obama administration had done.
Oliver-Bruno will live at CityWell for an indefinite amount of time until ICE delays his deportation or until the government provides a way for him to obtain legal status, according to Alerta Migratoria, the activist organization that connected him to the church.
He left Mexico in 1994 to live in Greenville, N.C. His wife, Julia Perez Pacheco, followed him in 1996 with a work permit.
In 2014, Oliver-Bruno said he tried to cross the U.S.-Mexico border again to be with wife who was undergoing open heart surgery in the U.S.
He was arrested at the border and federally prosecuted. Later, he received a stay of removal, when he provided medical records to immigration authorities showing his wife’s medical condition.
‘I almost died’
Oliver-Bruno said he moved into the church for the same reason he crossed the border again in 2014: to support his wife who has an autoimmune disease.
“I almost died,” Perez Pacheco said at a press conference at CityWell on Wednesday.
“I have a disease called Lupus that is attacking my heart and lungs,” she said. “I need Samuel, my husband, by my side, so he can give me and my son, Daniel, the support we need.”
Oliver-Bruno, 46, is a construction worker and the sole support for his wife and Daniel Oliver Perez, their 18-year-old son, Perez Pacheco said
“Without him I can’t live because I need to keep going to my doctor’s visits, keep getting my medications,” she said. “Like my doctor told me, if I stop taking my medications I will die.”
Church members in Greenville are helping to pay Perez Pacheco’s medical bills while he lives at the Durham church, Oliver-Bruno said. ICE has an internal policy of not entering sensitive locations like churches, schools and hospitals.
“I want to fight for my family,” Oliver-Bruno said. “I don’t want to stay with my arms crossed.”
“I want the authorities to hear me and to see the damage they’re causing me and other people like me,” he said.
Faith leaders and others who provide sanctuary to people facing deportation are breaking at least part of a federal law, 8 U.S. Code 1324, and can face up to five years in prison.
Enforcement of the law appears rare.
“What is legal and what is just is often not the same thing,” said Pastor Cleve May of CityWell.
“For those who would take offense at us, a church who would overtly break the law, we can only say to you, ‘We care more about justice than we do for laws,” he said. “Until our laws are morally just, we are bound to break them.”
Sanctuary in the U.S. dates as far back as the Underground Railroad when a network of safe houses protected slaves fleeing north. Globally, providing sanctuary dates even further back to biblical times.