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Duke community rallies behind immigrant who lived in Durham church for 11 months

Samuel Oliver Bruno took classes at Duke's Divinity School

Courtesy of Flickr
Courtesy of Flickr

For 11 months, Samuel Oliver-Bruno lived in sanctuary from immigration authorities in a Durham church. His Duke Divinity School classmates responded by moving their classes to the church.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested Oliver-Bruno, an undocumented immigrant, Friday Nov. 23. He was reportedly deported Thursday evening.

When working as a construction worker in Greenville, N.C., Oliver-Bruno decided to enter the ministry. According to a statement from Divinity School Dean L. Gregory Jones, he enrolled in the Duke Divinity School’s Hispanic-Latino/a Preaching Initiative, which was designed to teach theology to current or aspirant ministers. 

"Even under these difficult circumstances, Samuel continued to be a dedicated and faithful student in the program. We stand with Samuel today after his unjust arrest by Immigration and Customs Enforcement at his biometrics appointment that was scheduled by USCIS," Jones wrote in the release. "And we call for Samuel to be released from custody so he can return to his family and proceed with the USCIS process that he was pursuing in good faith when he was arrested."

When Oliver-Bruno received a deportation notice in 2017, he entered into protective sanctuary at the CityWell United Methodist Church in Durham. 

In order to let Oliver-Bruno continue his education, his classmates decided to relocate class meetings to the church, from which he didn't leave for 11 months. Each week, Oliver-Bruno’s wife and son drove four hours round-trip to visit him at CityWell. 

Through the Duke PathWays Fellowship program, Eric Ho, Pratt '17, participated in the meal train that brought food to Oliver-Bruno once a week. Ho became close friends with him and his family, as they spent Sunday evenings cooking dinner and singing Spanish hymns while Oliver-Bruno played the guitar. Ho found a confidant and mentor in Oliver-Bruno.

“He showed me a lot about how to fight for family," Ho said. 

Oliver-Bruno and his wife Julia immigrated to the United States more than twenty years ago, according to the description of their story on the church's website. Due to their family’s declining health back home, the couple decided to return to Mexico in 2011. Three years later, Julia became diagnosed with severe lupus and was unable to receive adequate medical attention in Mexico. Although she was granted humanitarian parole to re-enter the U.S. for medical treatment, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) refused to allow Oliver-Bruno entry. 

Adamant that he needed to accompany his wife who spoke little English, Oliver-Bruno tried to enter the U.S. without documentation in 2014. The attempted undocumented entry led to his arrest at the border. For three years of his time in the United States, he was here legally, equipped with a work permit and receiving stays of removal. 

Even though Oliver-Bruno was eventually released on humanitarian parole and given a work permit, the Trump administration issued Oliver-Bruno’s 2017 deportation notice on the basis that his criminal record from the border arrest made him unfit for a work permit renewal. 

Last month, UCSIS granted Oliver-Bruno a biometrics meeting appointment, the first step to a potential work permit renewal. To ensure his safety, members of CityWell, along with Oliver-Bruno’s wife and son, accompanied him to his UCSIS appointment last Friday. 

Oliver-Bruno, his son and his pastor entered UCSIS while the rest of the group prayed and sang songs of worship outside the building. After completing the required forms, Oliver-Bruno stepped in line. That's when undercover ICE agents arrested him, according to the News and Observer.

CityWell congregants and other bystanders began yelling and banging on the glass windows as they watched the ICE agents shove Oliver-Bruno into a van.

Olivia Lin, a second-year Duke medical student and CityWell Church member, was standing next to Oliver-Bruno’s wife during the arrest. 

“She cried like someone had died," Lin said. "I was afraid that she was going to have a heart attack."

Community members proceeded to form a physical blockade around the van. When the van inched forward, the supporters took half a step back. During the three-hour standoff with ICE, CityWell fellows sang Christian worship songs, including the hymn “I Shall Not Be Moved.” 

ICE eventually called the Morrisville Police, who threatened to arrest those participating in the standoff. After a second warning, the police arrested the 28 persisting congregants, including Oliver-Bruno’s son. 

Released the same day, the arrestees face charges and will appear in court in January.

North Carolina Congressmen G.K. Butterfield and David Price have taken to Twitter to defend Oliver-Bruno. Price called the denial of his deferment request a "miscarriage of justice."

WRAL's Sarah Kruger reported Thursday night that he has been deported via the Brownsville, Texas port of entry. She added that he arrived in Mexico around 9:00 p.m. Thursday.

“This isn’t just a news story. This is a friend and a family, and something is being taken away from them,” Ho said. “People need to hear this story because the immigration system needs to change.”

Jones echoed the sentiment in his release.

"Samuel is known to us," the dean wrote. "He is loved by us. He is one of us. And we stand as one with him."


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