US church takes in Albanian immigrant due for deportation next week

A church congregation in Detroit has announced that it is taking in an undocumented Albanian immigrant whom the US is seeking to deport next week even though his wheel-chair bound wife suffers from multiple sclerosis, USA Today has reported.

According to immigrant rights activists, the decision by Central United Methodist Church marks the first time a church in Detroit has announced that it is taking in an immigrant that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) wants to deport since President Donald Trump took office.

Central United Methodist Church in DetroitFlickr

Last year the church declared that it was a sanctuary congregation open to those seeking refuge. This will be tested on January 25 when Ded Rranxburgaj, 48, a restaurant cook, of Southgate, Michigan, is scheduled to be removed from the US and sent back to his native Albania.

USA Today pointed out that ICE has what is called a 'sensitive locations' policy that advises officials not to target houses of worship and schools.

According to the department's website, 'Enforcement actions may occur at sensitive locations in limited circumstances, but will generally be avoided.'

Rranxburgaj has said that he had been allowed to stay in the US for years under humanitarian status because of the condition of his wife, who is also an immigrant from Albania.

However, that status ended in October when immigration officials said he had to leave as part of a crackdown.

Rranxburgaj said he travelled from Albania to Canada and then came to the US 17 years ago as a visitor along with his wife, Flora Rranxburgaj, 44, and his eldest son, Laurence, 24, who is a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipient.

The couple's youngest son, 15-year-old Erik Rranxburgaj, is a US citizen.

According to Caitlin Homrich-Knieling, an immigrant family defence organiser at Michigan United advocacy group, Flora Rranxburgaj is protected from deportation because of her illness.

Ded Rranxburgaj said he has been trying to gain legal status for years and has worked with immigration officials who had granted him temporary humanitarian status after his wife was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 11 years ago.

Because of government changes in Albania, he had applied for political asylum, but his request was denied, according to Homrich-Knieling.

The couple appeared on stage on Tuesday at Central United Methodist, one of the two oldest Protestant churches in Detroit, pleading to be allowed to stay in the US.

'My wife is very sick,' he said at the church, adding that being deported would be 'very, very hard for me because of my family'.

He also said that he does not have a criminal record.

Flora sat in a wheelchair and shed tears as she described how her husband takes good care of her, saying that he is a 'very good husband' who helps her 'take a shower, to change clothes, to cook'.

The Rev Jill Zundel, pastor at Central United, said that the church's decision was in line with the teachings of Jesus, who had 'compassion for those who seek new hope in a new land'.

Announcing at a media conference that the couple will be housed in an apartment at the church, she added: 'Central United has been at the forefront of fighting for justice for three centuries now. What better place to announce that we will be a sanctuary for this family...We have hope and a belief that justice will prevail.'

Wearing a badge saying 'Deport the Racists. Keep the Dreamers,' referring to DACA recipients, she said that the church 'affirms all persons regardless of country of origin as a member of the family of God', adding: 'We serve a God that calls us to a higher law.'

Rev Charles Boayue, an immigrant from Liberia who once was a refugee and is today a district superintendent of the Detroit Renaissance District of the United Methodist Church, stressed that opening church doors to immigrants is in keeping with American values.

He said: 'It is time for Christians, Muslims, Jews, stand up together for our common humanity. This nation has been an example of binding people together.'

Zundel declared in March last year that her church would be a sanctuary congregation. USA Today reported that other houses of worship in Detroit – Christian, Muslim, Jewish – also declared their buildings to be sanctuary places.

Zundel's church housed a couple from an African country that had been denied entry into Canada over the summer.

She said that if ICE agents come to arrest Ded Rranxburgaj, church members plan to 'get our phones and live feed it on Facebook as it happens'.

The pastor last year got a tattoo on her arm that reads: 'When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty.'