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Worker remains in sanctuary church; says U.S. offered better life

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Daniel Oliver-Perez and Samuel Oliver-Bruno

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By Seth Thomas Gulledge
The Daily Reflector

Sunday, January 21, 2018

DURHAM — As the debate over immigration reform rages in Washington, D.C., Samuel Oliver-Bruno spends the entirety of his days inside a Durham church.

If he so much as walks outside, he may never see the United States again.

Bruno, 46, a resident of Greenville since 1994, has been in the country on a work order since 2014. But when he visited Immigration and Customs Enforcement in October to renew his paperwork, agents told him they would not renew it and he had to leave the country.

Instead, Bruno sought out the help of a couple former pastors, who are now members of the CityWell United Methodist Church in Durham, which was preparing its facilities to give sanctuary to immigrants facing deportation. Bruno’s situation quickly pushed the church to become a functioning sanctuary, and he has been inside it ever since his deportation date on Dec. 10.

Internal ICE policy dictates the agency will not enter establishments such as schools and churches to carry out deportation. Based on this policy, some churches are welcoming undocumented immigrants to shield them from deportation while they fight to stay. 

Bruno has to stay in the church and cannot work, spend time with his family at their home in Greenville, or provide for their needs. His wife suffers from lupus and other conditions; their son is a senior at J.H. Rose High School.

Bruno said he first crossed the border into the United States in 1994 because of poverty and a dearth of opportunities in Mexico. Speaking through a translator during a visit by the The Daily Reflector to the church in December, he said he came to the United States to have a chance at a better life.

“Crossing the border feels isolating and sickening because I had to leave the family that I did have in Mexico in order to endure making it to North Carolina,” he said. “It's not something I wish for anybody, and not something that anybody does by choice.”

However, Bruno did cross back to Mexico in 2013 to see his parents who were ill at the time. In 2014, when he was attempting to recross, border guards caught and jailed him.

Because his son, Daniel Oliver-Perez, a natural-born citizen, and his wife, Maria Pacheco-Perez, was ill, ICE granted him a stay of deportation and issued him a work order. ICE continued to grant stays and work orders on the same grounds each year until September.

Viribiana Martinez of Alerta Migratoria, a Triangle-based advocacy group that arranged Bruno’s sanctuary, said changing administrative attitudes are what resulted in Bruno’s work order not being renewed. She said no new law or policy resulted in the deportation orders, just internal ICE policy that led to the denial.

President Donald Trump has directed the agency to aggressively enforce immigration laws and deport more immigrants who are in the United States illegally while his administration and Congress develop policies to decide the fate of more than 11 million undocumented people.

Political discussion are largely stymied because of disagreements on multiple fronts, from construction of a border wall to the continuation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allows 800,000 people brought here as children to stay.

ICE denied Bruno an extenson of his work order at least partially due to his criminal record, Martinez said. It consists of only one charge, illegal entry, a federal charge resulting from his 2014 illegal crossing. Martinez said his denial can be overturned by any ICE field office, such as the office in Charlotte.

Several attempts by The Daily Reflector to secure an interview with an official or spokesperson from the office failed.

Though Bruno has been in the country for almost 20 years, he does not speak English. He said the primary reason is he has had more important priorities.

“I came here to work, and work crosses languages,” he said, “It's (his work) also very exhausting, so I can’t go to night classes. But during my work day I understand the orders people are sharing and I can follow them.”

Bruno works in drywall, and has recently begun working in insulation as well. He said throughout the construction field in Greenville, there are plenty of other workers just like him, who can understand enough English to effectively do their job.

In response to a question about whether he felt that he was saturating the job market and taking employment from citizens, he said he believes there is always work for those that need it, especially in his field. He said there is a high demand for laborers in Greenville in building and infrastructure projects, like Vidant Health’s new cancer center tower, where he has worked on jobs.

Bruno said he has not applied for citizenship because the process is expensive and “favors those with money.” He said between providing for his son and paying medical bills, the process was too expensive.

He said he has been paying taxes since he arrived in 1994. Though not a citizen, the Internal Revenue Service issues people like him a Individual Tax Identification Number so they can pay taxes. When he was placed on a work order in 2014, he also was issued a Social Security number. He said he also has a driver’s licence, which can be obtained with a tax identification number.

He said while his family — because of his son — qualified for various assistance like food stamps, they have never sought or received any government assistance.

He and his family have tried to be part of the community here. They attended services at The Memorial Baptist Church and Oliver-Bruno plays guitar at other churches. His son plays soccer for J.H. Rose, and in December the team and supporter raised money to help ensure Oliver-Perez would be able to stay in school and graduate on schedule.

Martinez said it is not uncommon for undocumented workers to have licenses and ITIN to pay taxes, because it can be more difficult to find employment without one. She said one of the most common things she hears is that undocumented immigrant are draining the government resources without paying anything back, but in her experience it simply is not true.

“We really need to start covering how undocumented immigrants actually pay taxes or how undocumented immigrants really pay your grandmas Social Security, because that’s really what we do,” she said. “It’s really messed up because we’re villainized, and antagonized like we’re not doing it, but we are, we’re helping sustain this country.”

Martinez said Bruno is a perfect example of an undocumented immigrant who has paid taxes, contributed to society and been an all-but-official citizen of the country.

His case has caught the attention of people throughout the state, including Congressman G.K. Butterfiled, whose staff said in a statement that Bruno’s case was indicative of a larger problem in the country.

“Mr. Oliver’s case and the devestating impact his removal from the country could bring his family and community is a glaring example of the reality faced by many in our complex immigration system today,” Butterfield said. “His case is yet another example of why Congress must finally address comprehensive immigration reform.”

Martinez said Bruno was only one of several cases in the Triangle area of undocumented immigrants taking sanctuary in churches.

Congressman Walter B. Jones Jr.’s office said the Congressman had no comment of Bruno’s case.

Bruno will remain in sanctuary at CityWell church indefinitely according to Martinez. She said until he can get a renewed work order or stay of deportation, he cannot leave the church.

Contact Seth Gulledge at sgulledge@reflector.com and 329-9579