ICE’s War on Christmas

A demonstrating church member is arrested after Samuel Oliver-Bruno, 47, an undocumented Mexican national, was arrested after arriving at an appointment with immigration officials, in Morrisville, N.C., on Nov. 23, 2018. He had been living in CityWell Church in Durham, N.C., since late 2017 to avoid the reach of immigration officers, who generally avoid making arrests at churches.  (AP Photo/Travis Long)

DURHAM, N.C. (RNS) — The day after Thanksgiving, while many families were still enjoying their holiday together, Samuel Oliver-Bruno went with his wife, son and fellow church members to an appointment at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) office in Morrisville, N.C. Since Oliver-Bruno, an undocumented immigrant, took sanctuary 11 months ago at CityWell Church, a United Methodist congregation in Durham, he had been waiting for this opportunity to make the case for why he should be able to stay with his family in the United States.

After 22 years here, his family knows no other home. Oliver-Bruno hoped this appointment would be his first step toward a “deferred action” status that would allow him to return home and work legally. Instead, plainclothes ICE officers tackled him in the lobby of the USCIS office and seized him for deportation.

When his church family realized the trap he had been lured into, they followed him to the parking lot, encircled the minivan ICE agents put him in and began singing worship songs. Families with their own children in tow insisted they were there to extend the religious sanctuary of their church building to this place of public witness.

They refused to leave, maintaining their service of worship until local police had handcuffed 27 of them and carried them away. The last woman handcuffed fell to her knees and lay down in front of the minivan. As the arresting officers carried her away, she sang, “We shall not, we shall not be moved.…”

Since the Trump administration initiated its zero-tolerance immigration policy, denying stays of removal to undocumented immigrants who have been in the United States for decades, faith communities here and around the country have offered solidarity and support to people who face imminent deportation by welcoming them into religious sanctuary.

As a minister in North Carolina, I realized the church was under assault as the Trump administration’s extreme enforcement actions separated families. But I also got to know church communities like CityWell’s that were ready to practice moral resistance.

The thuggish and deceptive capture of Samuel Oliver-Bruno is not only an assault on him and his family. It is also an attack on the religious liberty of faith communities that offer sanctuary as an act of worship.

Members of CityWell had not rehearsed the tactics of civil disobedience; they knew what to do when their brother was assaulted because they have worshiped Jesus with him for the past year. They remembered a story that calls us to welcome strangers because we, too, were once strangers in a foreign land. Because they have gathered around the Jesus who identified with the marginalized and stood up to the violent powers of his own day, they knew they had to do the same. Their resistance was a public act of worship.

Migrants run from tear gas launched by U.S. agents, amid photojournalists covering the Mexico-U.S. border, after a group of migrants got past Mexican police at the Chaparral crossing in Tijuana, Mexico, on Nov. 25, 2018. The mayor of Tijuana has declared a humanitarian crisis in his border city and says he has asked the United Nations for aid to deal with the approximately 5,000 Central American migrants who have arrived in the city. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

In an appeal to the conservative white evangelicals at the core of his political base, President Trump has claimed to be a champion of religious liberty. Under his administration, the Department of Justice has established a “Religious Liberty Task Force” and spokesmen of the religious right have celebrated Trump as America’s “most evangelical-friendly president.”

But the religious liberty this administration trumpets is a license to sentimentally use religion as a mask for the cruelty that is being executed in the name of nationalism.

Throughout the Bible, political powers that oppress poor people and immigrants are described as wild beasts. The prophet Ezekiel calls them “ravenous wolves” and Isaiah says their hooves trample like horses and they seize their prey like lions. In Revelation 13, an unjust political regime is described as a beast that resurrects an earlier beast that had been mortally wounded.

It’s a powerful image to consider in the Trump era, as nooses hang in trees during the U.S. Senate runoff election in Mississippi and immigrants face tear gas at our southern border in scenes reminiscent of Bull Connor’s Birmingham. We are, indeed, living in biblical times.

But the sanctuary community’s witness is a reminder that, however vicious they may seem, wild beasts and political regimes are creatures. They are not God.

People who are formed by worship of the living God know they are free to follow God’s law no matter what secular authorities say. This is the religious liberty that led many of this nation’s original revolutionaries to rebel against King George, and it’s the faith that inspired abolitionists, women suffragists and civil rights workers to push us toward a more perfect union. This is the faith of today’s sanctuary movement, which was attacked by ICE agents in Morrisville.

President Trump has consistently invoked a fictitious “War on Christmas” at his rallies to stir up the crowd, claiming victory against those who attacked the holiday. In 2018 the “War on Christmas” is an assault led by President Trump and justified by his evangelical enablers.

If we want to follow the Christ child who came to bring peace on earth and goodwill toward all people, we must learn from the moral witnesses who sang “We Shall Not Be Moved” while officers carried them off to jail. If we are not free to offer sanctuary as God’s people, we are not free to follow the baby Jesus who was able to grow up and establish the church because he found refuge from King Herod’s violence in Egypt.

(Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, an associate minister at St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church in North Carolina, is the author, most recently, of “Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)

About the author

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove


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  • Unless the law of the land is patently immoral, unethical and is a violation of conscience. Then one has a duty to oppose them. Especially religions which espouse ideas of morality, ethics and lawful conduct.

    Your post points out why fascist governments always seek religious groups for support. Making obedience to the government more important than moral considerations. “The Law is the Law” is what people say in dictatorships when they do not want to consider moral implications of what they are doing. When they want to justify what is clearly and objectively wrong.

    The ICE is not even following the law of the land. It is abusing due process rights of people and promoting crime. In this case the person was complying with the law in efforts to attain legal status.

    There was no necessity to detain him and such efforts are counterproductive to society. Mostly because it diverts resources away from actual threats to society and makes criminal law enforcement more difficult.

  • I never laughed so hard as I laughed at “(t)he thuggish and deceptive capture of Samuel Oliver-Bruno….”.

    Even by RNS standards that is pretty zany.

  • There is no law that I’m aware of allowing churches to offer sanctuary – therefore no infringement on religious liberty. They didn’t enter the church to apprehend him. Where is the attack on religious liberty? I agree that ICE’s actions were reprehensible and I say more power to the churches that shelter them. However I don’t think sanctuary for churches should be part of our law.

  • There is no duty or obligation to turn people over to ICE. It is also not the duty of state or local law enforcement to go after civil immigration law violators either.

    I don’t see a religious liberty issue either other than the presence of ICE officers around churches possibly being harassment of parishioners.

    “However I don’t think sanctuary for churches should be part of our law.”

    Its more a matter of PR and custom than law.

  • Actually the first sentence is a pretty accurate description os the actions of overs zealous ICE officers.

  • Actually the first sentence described enforcing the law as written.

    Overzealous would have involved beating Samuel Oliver-Bruno with truncheons and/or invading the church premises prior to that to arrest him and everyone involved in aiding him.

  • Police actions do not appear to fall under the realm of exceeding what a reasonable and prudent law enforcement officer would do.

  • The concept of the “reasonable and prudent law enforcement officer” is – in law – only used in considering an action that results in harm or injury.

    That did not happen in this case.

    The author is opposed to American immigration laws, so for the author every arrest is an outrage.

  • Law enforcement regularly employs tricks and traps. Remember stings where fugitives were informed that they have won prizes and when they claimed to collect they were captured? Police are also allowed to lie during questioning.

  • And the latter makes me wonder if that is pat of the rationalization that it is also ok to lie on the stand.

  • Reasonable and prudent means there is also a situational assessment to determine the level of force required – this situation as described, did not appear to meet the threshold justifying the ICE officers actions. There is a maxim as to using the least amount of force necessary – use of force models begin at the verbal level.

  • In this article the ICE did not break any bones, injure the arrested, or otherwise exceed reasonable bounds.

    The author’s complaint is that they arrested the illegal alien, and arrested 27 other individuals for failing to follow police orders and disband.

  • First of all, a tackle in the lobby of a public building was likely excessive. – no indication of anything prior to justify doing so.

    I think the author had a bigger complaint than simply the arrest of the other individuals for continuing their religious protest in offering symbolic sanctuary..

  • The article mentions no “tackle” and I can find no reference to a tackle anywhere else.

    Standard police procedure in an arrest is to protect the arresting officer(s) and the public by making the suspect immobile while being handcuffed, conducting a search for weapons, and otherwise incapacitating the individual being arrested.


    “Generally, police officers are only allowed to use the minimum amount of force necessary to protect themselves and bring the suspect into police custody. This is why people are advised to never resist an arrest or argue with police. The more a suspect struggles, the more force is required for the police to do their job.”

    For example, courts have found that an unarmed individual who repeatedly reached for the back of his pants – which could well indicate the presence of weapon there – after being repeatedly told to cease doing so or risk being shot by the armed police who forced him to the ground face down, had no grounds for a civil rights action when he did so again and the police fired.

    The author does not like the law, the ICE, or the notion that people of laws the author does not care for get arrested.

  • Para 2 ‘”Instead, plainclothes ICE officers tackled him in the lobby of the USCIS office and seized him for deportation.” He walked in thinking he had an appointment to stay legally and got tackled when he walked through the door. No opportunity to resist arrest. The local cops got it right with the church folk in making their arrests.

  • According to other news reports a more appropriate word would be “apprehended” – taking both arms and surrounding him rendering him unable to move in any direction or use his arms and hands.

    You’ve chosen to take the word “tackled” in this sense:


    but the word “tackle” is vastly equivocal in English:


    and only this meaning seem to have purchase:

    “Make determined efforts to deal with (a problem or difficult task)”

    The word comes from Middle Low German “takel”, from taken ‘lay hold of’, which is what they did.

    As far as I am concerned we are done with this topic and this piece of overheated anti-immigration enforcement propaganda disguised as an article.