Photo: Isaac Villegas is arrested. Still photo from video by Travis Long/The News & Observer.
Isaac Villegas, pastor of Chapel Hill (North Carolina) Mennonite Fellowship, was arrested Nov. 23, along with 26 others, for obstructing immigration officers who were arresting Samuel Oliver-Bruno, who was to be deported from the United States. Oliver-Bruno’s son, Daniel Oliver Perez, a U.S. citizen, was also arrested for refusing to let go of his father, whom ICE agents were pulling into their van.
After living almost a year at CityWell United Methodist Church in Durham, North Carolina, Oliver-Bruno, who is undocumented, was arrested when he left the church to keep an appointment with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) in Morrisville, North Carolina. Several days later, Oliver-Bruno was deported to Mexico. He made contact with his family on Nov. 29.
In a Nov. 28 phone interview, Villegas said, “Given the state of this country, I’ve realized that this administration doesn’t keep people safe; we keep us safe. It has become our responsibility to protect members of our community whom ICE tries to snatch from our lives.”
His own congregation is part of a coalition of North Carolina churches that provide sanctuary. See “Honduran woman fleeing violence takes sanctuary at Chapel Hill Church.”
The Raleigh, North Carolina, News & Observer reported that ICE spokesperson Bryan Cox explained the reason for the arrest 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.”
Footage from News & Observer:
In a joint statement released the evening of Nov. 23, Reps. David Price and G.K. Butterfield accused USCIS and ICE of coordinating the arrest, reports the News & Observer: “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.”
ICE has agreed to keep Oliver-Bruno in a detention center in the country until his case his adjudicated, the statement said.
CityWell’s pastor, Cleve May, told the supporters who gathered that he hoped attending the appointment would be a simple step of due process for Oliver-Bruno’s request for deferred action. They entered the USCIS office building, but then Oliver-Bruno was arrested and taken out a back door and put into a van. Supporters surrounded the van, while some blockaded it, and for about two hours the group sang worship songs and prayed. Eventually, Morrisville Police and the Wake Sheriff’s Office arrested those blockading the van, including May and Villegas, after multiple warnings to disperse.
Villegas said: “During these times I’ve realized that the call of Jesus’ nonviolent love is to resist the violence of this world with our bodies.”
He and the others arrested with him were released in the evening of Nov. 23. He said they were charged with failure to disperse and resisting a public officer. He was released on a promise to appear, since he has no criminal record. Some others required a secured bond.
At Chapel Hill two days after his release, Villegas preached about the arrests.
Since then, the group has met and talked about developing a legal strategy to make sure their day in court is part of their witness. At a vigil at a regional ICE office on Nov. 27, more than 400 people showed up, Villegas said.
He said his congregation has been supportive. One member came up with a rapid-response system people can join to be alerted when something like this happens. Also, the congregation’s moderator is writing a letter of support.
Support has also come from the wider church, from Central District Conference of Mennonite Church USA, which Chapel Hill belongs to. Sue Park-Hur, denominational minister for leadership development of MC USA, wrote in an email: “Historically, Mennonites in our peace witness as Christ followers have taken risks to confront unjust laws that dehumanize and diminish the image of God in all people. Isaac is one of many who have taken that risk for the sake of a stranger who has become a neighbor, a brother.”
In her email, Park-Hur also noted MC USA’s 2014 Churchwide Statement on Immigration, which says: “If we truly ‘see the misery, hear the cries and know the sufferings’ of undocumented immigrants among us, our authentic response will be to choose, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to walk the difficult and sometimes risky journey of growth in confronting these complex immigration issues. As people who look to Scripture for guidance, we believe that the stories of our spiritual ancestors in the Old Testament and Jesus’ teachings in the New Testament are clear: we are to welcome the stranger.”