Undocumented man arrested after leaving sanctuary to meet with immigration officials

After living almost a year in a Durham church, an undocumented man was arrested Friday by immigration officers when he left the church to keep an appointment with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in Morrisville.

Samuel Oliver-Bruno, 47, has been living in the basement of CityWell United Methodist Church for 11 months while he petitions to have his deportation to Mexico delayed. Churches are one of the few places where U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement does not make arrests.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services requested Oliver-Bruno to appear in person to provide fingerprints, a necessary step for his petition, according to a news release from Alerta Migratoria, an immigrants rights advocacy organization in North Carolina.

Oliver-Bruno was accompanied by faith leaders, family members and other supporters Friday morning. He was arrested by immigration authorities inside the USCIS office.

When asked by The News & Observer why Oliver-Bruno was arrested, ICE spokesperson Bryan Cox said in an email:

“Mr. Oliver-Bruno is a convicted criminal who has received all appropriate legal process under federal law, has no outstanding appeals, and has no legal basis to remain in the U.S.”

USCIS did not comment on Oliver-Bruno’s case.

“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,” USCIS spokesperson Michael Bars said in a statement.

“USCIS is committed to adjudicating all petitions, applications and requests fairly, efficiently, and effectively on a case-by-case basis to determine if they meet all standards required under applicable law, policies, and regulations.”

Demonstrators surround a government vehicle after Samuel Oliver-Bruno, 47, an undocumented man was arrested Friday by immigration officers in Morrisville after he left the CityWell United Methodist Church of Durham where he has been living for 11 months. Churches are one of the few places where U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement do not make arrests. Travis Long tlong@newsobserver.com@newsobser

In a joint statement released Friday evening, Reps. David Price and G.K. Butterfield accused USCIS and ICE of coordinating the arrest.

“It appears ICE has acted in concert with officials at USCIS, who instructed Mr. Oliver-Bruno to appear at local USCIS offices to discuss his deferred deportation.”

“He was then apprehended by plainclothes ICE agents upon entering the building. At best, Mr. Oliver-Bruno was presented with a catch-22 dilemma; at worst, he was entrapped. 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.”

ICE has agreed to keep Oliver-Bruno in a detention center in the country until his case his adjudicated, the statement said.

“While this means he will not be immediately deported, we remain committed to fighting for his release.”

The scene Friday

A crowd of supporters gathered outside the office shortly before 9 o’clock Friday morning to pray for Oliver-Bruno. CityWell’s pastor Cleve May told those gathered that he hoped attending the appointment would be a simple step of due process for Oliver-Bruno’s request for deferred action.

“This a required part of that process on the part of USCIS, and so we’re asking that our government honor a person’s attempt to follow the process,” May said to the crowd before entering the building with Oliver-Bruno and his legal team.

“Your presence here is a very helpful thing in demonstrating the community support and the fact that if any violation of this due process were to occur it will not go unwitnessed and it will not go before the community crying out for justice.”

Oliver-Bruno entered the building with May and his legal team while the rest of his supporters waited outside the building. Through the glass doors of the building, some supporters and reporters saw Oliver-Bruno, his son and immigration officers scuffle.

Oliver-Bruno was arrested and taken out a back door and put into a van, which was then surrounded by his supporters. Some blockaded the van for about two hours singing worship songs and praying. Eventually, Morrisville Police and the Wake Sheriff’s Office arrested those blockading the van, including May, after multiple warnings to disperse.

Oliver-Bruno’s son, Daniel Oliver Perez, a U.S. citizen, was arrested in the parking lot after approaching the van to say goodbye to his father. He was charged by Morrisville police with assault on a government officer.

The Morrisville Police Department received a call at 9:15 a.m. about a crowd preventing ICE from transporting someone who had been arrested, the agency said in a news release. The police department says it confirmed ICE had a federal arrest warrant for Oliver-Bruno and that the agency did not assist in his arrest. The police department arrested 27 people in the crowd who were told to disperse.

“The Morrisville Police Department did not have prior knowledge of plans to arrest Mr. Oliver-Bruno. Anyone with inquiries about the initial arrest are asked to contact the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Office.”

Protestors are arrested after detaining a Department of Homeland Security van containing Samuel Oliver-Bruno, 47, who was arrested after being asked to appear at the United State Citizenship and Immigration office in Morrisville, N.C. on Friday, November 23, 2018. Samuel Oliver-Bruno had been living in the sanctuary of CityWell United Methodist Church for 11 months because churches are one of the few places where U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement does not make arrests. Wake County Sheriff’s deputies and Morrsiville Police made several arrest of the protestors surrounding the van containing Oliver-Bruno. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

Congressional support

Virdiana Martinez, Alerta Migratoria’s director, said Oliver-Bruno knew he was taking a risk by leaving the church, and an even bigger risk by walking into an immigration office so that his petition could be considered.

Oliver-Bruno is one of six immigrants in the state who is living on church properties to avoid imminent deportation and buy time to delay deportation. These churches are called “sanctuary churches” and are part of a national growing faith-based movement. ICE generally doesn’t arrest undocumented immigrants in churches, schools or hospitals, based on an internal self-imposed policy established in 2012.

DUR_ 20171213_sanctuary_oli (6)
Samuel Oliver-Bruno glances back before preparing for interviews after the press conference held at CityWell United Methodist Church on Wednesday Dec. 13, 2017. Casey Toth N&O file photo

“By them leaving the church and entering these (immigration) offices they are essentially putting themselves in harm’s way ... to make this request,” Martinez said.

Alerta Migratoria has been making regular visits to Washington D.C. to advocate for the six immigrants and obtain support from their respective Congress members.

Reps. David Price and G.K. Butterfield, both Democrats, co-signed a support letter asking USCIS for prosecutorial discretion in Oliver-Bruno’s case.

“We strongly believe Mr. Oliver-Bruno is someone who is deserving of deferred action,” the letter says, which was signed Nov. 1.

Since he moved into the church Oliver-Bruno has stopped working in construction. He is the sole financial support for his wife, Julia Perez Pacheco, and son, Daniel. His wife has lupus and depends financially on her husband to pay for treatment.

“Mr. Oliver-Bruno is the sole income earner for his family and his removal from the country would result in his wife being unable to receive the medical treatment she desperately needs...,” according to the letter.

“Daniel is 19 years old and his ability to better himself through the pursuit of a college degree is dependent upon his father’s financial and emotional assistance, which Mr. Oliver-Bruno would be unable to provide should he be removed from the country.”

Martinez also has been talking with Republican U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis’s office to obtain his support for Oliver-Bruno and the five others.

Samuel Oliver-Bruno, 47, an undocumented man, seated on floor, was arrested Friday by immigration officers in Morrisville after he left the CityWell United Methodist Church of Durham where he has been living for 11 months. Churches are one of the few places where U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement do not make arrests. CAMILA MOLINA cmolina@newsobserver.com@newsobs

Arrested at the border

Oliver-Bruno left Mexico in 1994 to live in Greenville. His wife followed him in 1996 with a work permit.

It’s unclear when Oliver-Bruno returned to Mexico, but in May 2014, he tried to cross the border into the U.S. again to be with his wife who was undergoing open heart surgery.

At that time, he was arrested at the border because he attempted to enter the country using fraudulent documents, according to ICE’s statement. The U.S. government solely allowed him to enter the country for federal criminal prosecution. He was convicted in the U.S. District Court for the Western District.


“Given he had completed his federal sentence, he had been released from federal criminal custody in June 2014, he came into this agency’s custody at that time and was subject to removal at that time. However, due to a variety of appeals and acts of discretion he was not removed,” said Cox, the ICE spokesman.

That discretion, however, came to an end last year. When the agency informed him of that, Oliver-Bruno moved into the church to buy himself more time.

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