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Migrant who sheltered in church for a year detained by ICE at immigration meeting

Samuel Oliver-Bruno was arrested after showing up for a routine appointment at the local USCIS office.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials on Friday arrested and detained a man who had been living in the basement of a North Carolina church since last year, as he met with U.S. immigration officials for a routine appointment. (PHOTO CREDIT: Alerta Migratoria NC)
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials on Friday arrested and detained a man who had been living in the basement of a North Carolina church since last year, as he met with U.S. immigration officials for a routine appointment. (PHOTO CREDIT: Alerta Migratoria NC)

Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials on Friday arrested and arrested a Mexican national who had been living in the basement of a North Carolina church since last year, as he met with U.S. immigration officials for a routine appointment.

Samuel Oliver-Bruno, 47, who is undocumented, was scheduled to meet with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to be fingerprinted as part of his immigration appeals process. Authorities instead detained him inside the USCIS office once he arrived.

Oliver-Bruno is one of six undocumented immigrants who sought sanctuary inside churches across the state as they petition to have their deportations delayed. ICE typically does not make arrests inside such facilities.

Faith leaders, family members, and advocates who had accompanied Oliver-Bruno to the meeting in a show of support were outraged after learning the husband and father of one had been detained.

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Oliver-Bruno had been working construction to support his son, Daniel, and his wife, Julia, who has lupus and requires regular medical treatments for her condition, prior to last year, when he sought refuge at CityWell. If he is deported, supporters say, his wife may no longer get the help she needs.

Daniel and 26 others were arrested Friday protesting Oliver-Bruno’s detainment and attempting to block the ICE van transporting him to the detention center.

Immigrant rights advocacy group Alerta Migratoria, which published a news release on Oliver-Bruno’s behalf this week, said he knew the risks of leaving CityWell, where he had taken refuge for 11 months, but decided the appointment was too important to miss.

“By them leaving the church and entering these (immigration) offices they are essentially putting themselves in harm’s way … to make this request,” Virdiana Martinez, Alerta Migratoria’s director, told The News & Observer on Friday.

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Oliver-Bruno is the sole income earner for his family and his removal would be detrimental to their well-being, North Carolina Reps. David Price and G.K. Butterfield, both Democrats, wrote separately in a letter to USCIS field director Jay Wesselman Friday.

“Julia…has been diagnosed with Lupus and depends on Samuel, the sole provider for their family, to pay for her medical treatment. Additionally, Daniel Perez depends on his father’s financial and emotional support as he pursues a college degree,” the congressmen wrote. “As we highlighted for USCIS officials earlier this month, Mr. Oliver-Bruno’s removal from the U.S. would result in severe hardship for his family […].”

ICE spokesperson Bryan Cox insisted in a statement to the News & Observer that Oliver-Bruno was a “convicted criminal who has received all appropriate legal process under federal law” and has no more outstanding appeals.

A USCIS spokesperson also claimed the agency did not make appointments with individuals who had legal basis to continue the appeals process, suggesting there had been no meeting on the books to begin with.

Photo of Oliver-Bruno's appointment letter from USCIS officials. (Image credit: Alerta Migratoria)
Photo of Oliver-Bruno's appointment letter from USCIS officials. (Image credit: Alerta Migratoria)

Alerta Migratoria, however, says that’s not true, and both Price and Butterfield noted this week that the “crimes” Oliver-Bruno is said to have committed were either minor traffic violations or related to his undocumented entry into the United States.

“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,” they stated.

Oliver-Bruno first came to the United States in the mid-1990s. His wife followed shortly thereafter, entering the country on a work-permit. Although he later left the United States for reasons unknown, he crossed the border again in 2014, after finding out his wife would need open-heart surgery, and was detained by ICE officials.

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ICE released him later that year. Following a series of appeals, officials said he no longer had legal standing to remain in the United States and would be deported. Since then, he has been attempting to delay that deportation in order to care for his wife.

Oliver-Bruno is the latest person to be swept up in the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigration, both legal and undocumented. His arrest is also the most recent instance of immigration officials working together to target those living in the country without documentation.

As ThinkProgress previously reported, earlier this year, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), accusing USCIS and ICE officials of conspiring to set “deportation traps” to lure undocumented immigrants. The lawsuit alleged that USCIS would routinely schedule meetings with those seeking residency or legal status, allowing ICE to arrest them when they showed up for the appointment.

A series of emails obtained by The Boston Globe appeared to provide proof of that coordinated effort.

“As far as scheduling goes, I would prefer not to do them all at one time as it is [not] only a strain on our ability to transport and process several arrests at once, but it also has the potential to be a trigger for negative media interests, as we have seen in the past,” one ICE officer wrote in an email to a USCIS official in October.

ICE has also found workarounds to detain those living and working in the country legally. Earlier this year, ICE arrested a 56-year-old mother with a valid work visa and no criminal record, claiming she had missed a scheduled check-in with immigration officials. The woman said she had only missed the meeting because the immigration lawyer in charge of her case had committed suicide, meaning she never received the notification.

This article has been updated to correct Oliver-Bruno’s initial release date from ICE detention from 2016 to 2014.