Samuel Oliver-Bruno found sanctuary in a North Carolina church for nearly a year. Authorities detained him last week after he left the building for an appointment with immigration officials. Dozens of his supporters were arrested, too, as they sang "Amazing Grace" and tried to block an ICE van from taking him to a detention center.
Days later, Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported the 47-year-old undocumented immigrant to Mexico. His 19-year-old son and wife remain in the United States.
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"They are heartbroken. This will permanently alter who they are as a family, or the way they can be together as family," Rev. Cleve May of CityWell United Methodist Church told CNN on Friday.
Members of the church in Durham are reeling, May said. And when they go back to church on Sunday, Oliver-Bruno's chair in the fourth row will be left empty as a tribute to him.
"We will worship," May said, "but we will do so as a grieving family."
ICE: 'He had no legal basis to remain in the US'
Oliver-Bruno had lived in North Carolina with his family for more than two decades. Advocates had been appealing to authorities to stop his deportation, arguing that Oliver-Bruno was a devoted community member who needed to remain in the United States to care for his wife, who suffers from lupus and other medical conditions.
Oliver-Bruno was detained a week ago when he went to what he thought was an appointment at a US Citizenship and Immigration Services office to submit biometric data to support his request that authorities defer his deportation.
"Upon entering the USCIS office, filling out registration paperwork and stepping into the processing line, plainclothes ICE officers posing as other immigrants filling out paperwork forcibly detained Samuel," the church said in a statement.
An ICE spokesman said Friday that Oliver-Bruno's deportation complied with federal law and agency policy.
"After receiving all appropriate legal process under federal law he had no legal basis to remain in the US," ICE spokesman Bryan Cox said.
In 2014, Oliver-Bruno was arrested in El Paso, Texas, after he attempted to enter the United States using a Texas birth certificate, court documents show.
He later admitted that he was a Mexican national and had paid $1,000 for the document. Oliver-Bruno's case has been subject to extensive appeals since then, Cox said.
Last week Cox said authorities arrested Oliver-Bruno as part of a "targeted enforcement action."
But church officials and several North Carolina congressmen criticized how the arrest was handled, calling it entrapment.
"This action undermines our democracy and threatens the credibility of US agencies and government processes," CityWell said in a statement. "Samuel's family, church and supporting community condemn these actions and demand accountability for all immigration and law enforcement agencies that conspired in this operation."
11 months in sanctuary
To avoid deportation, Oliver-Bruno moved into CityWell United Methodist Church in December 2017. ICE says it generally avoids arrests at "sensitive locations," such as houses of worship.
The church agreed to take him in, but the building wasn't ready for him. He helped with the renovations, including building a bedroom and a shower.
During his time at the church, Oliver-Bruno also attended classes to learn English as a second language, played guitar and read during services.
With the help of community members, Oliver-Bruno, who is an aspiring Baptist minister, continued his studies at Duke University's Divinity School after his class agreed to meet at the church, advocacy group Alerta Migratoria said.
Now that he's been deported to Mexico, the next steps for Oliver-Bruno are uncertain, May said. But no matter where he travels, the church will still be with him.
"We will continue working to reunite Samuel and his family in the United States. There's a really profound, humanitarian case to make for this," May said. "And we'll keep making it."
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