Ded Rranxburgaj pulled open the door to his new apartment in Detroit last week and quickly led two volunteers to a couch where his wife, Flora, lay half conscious.
Her cheeks were flushed with hot pink splotches, and she struggled to open her eyes. The woman, who has debilitating multiple sclerosis, had fallen in the bathroom, and Rranxburgaj caught her.
It was time to call 911, he said.
Just one problem: His wife relies on him for basic needs, from bathing to dressing, but stepping outside the church – even to go to the hospital – could get Rranxburgaj deported.
That’s because the 48-year-old father of two is trapped inside Central Methodist United Church in downtown Detroit. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement considers him a fugitive, so if he leaves the sanctuary, he could be deported to his native Albania, where he fled in 2001.
A cook who worked seven days a week to support his family, Rranxburgaj has lived in the church for two weeks, since he and his family left their apartment in the the nearby town of Southgate. They are part of a network of undocumented immigrants seeking shelter in an increasing number of churches from New Jersey to Colorado that offer sanctuary from deportation.
The churches are taking advantage of ICE’s policy on “sensitive locations,” which discourages arrests for immigration violations in churches, schools or hospitals. The number of such churches is increasing nationwide amid heightened debate about immigration, stoked in large part by President Donald Trump’s vow to crack down on undocumented workers and debate about the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which provides protections to nearly 800,000 children of undocumented immigrants and is due to expire on March 5.
Church volunteers hope ICE will reverse Rranxburgaj’s deportation order and allow him to stay in the United States, as has happened in a handful of other cases involving immigrants nationwide who sought sanctuary in churches.
How long will he have to live in a church? No one knows. One man in Philadelphia did so for nearly a year before his case was resolved.
“She got me, and I got her,” Rranxburgaj said in a heavy Albanian accent. “I feel safe here. I’m home. Jesus’ home.”
ICE officials did not respond to messages from Bridge seeking comment, but told the Detroit Free Press this month that Rranxburgaj is a fugitive. He was due to be deported on Jan. 25.
“ICE does not exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement. All of those in violation of the immigration laws may be subject to immigration arrest, detention and, if found removable by final order, removal from the United States,” the newspaper quoted ICE spokesman Khaalid Walls as saying.
Escape from Albania
After the fall of communism in 1992, Albania’s economy collapsed in 1997. Seeking stability and the American Dream, Rranxburgaj said he fled Albania in 2001 with the couple’s young son. Flying into Canada, they ended up in Hamtramck, where his brother lived. They didn’t have legal immigration documentation.
About six months later, his wife, Flora made the trip to the United States. They soon had another son, Eric, 15, who is a U.S. citizen. The couple applied for political asylum to remain in the country, but were denied in 2006.
In 2007, Flora was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. It makes her so weak she is unable to travel in cars for a more than a half an hour, much less to Albania.
“I woke up one day, and I was an old woman,” said Flora, 45.
Since 2009, the couple has been given permission to remain in the country due to her illness on humanitarian grounds, said George Mann, Rranxburgaj’s attorney. Each year, Ded Rranxburgaj has checked in with immigration officials as required, Mann said.
But in October, everything changed. Even though Flora’s condition had not improved, Ded Rranxburgaj said ICE told him he had to buy a one-way ticket back to Albania. He was supposed to show up for an interview with ICE on Jan. 17, but for the first time ever, he didn’t comply.
“He came to us the day before and said, ‘I can’t go. They’re going to arrest me and I won’t ever see my wife again,’” Mann said. And because he didn’t show up for that interview, ICE will not consider Rranxburgaj’s appeals to stay, Mann said.
“They didn’t look at the hundreds of pages of medical records. They denied him on a technicality,” Mann said. “The moral blindness of this is beyond belief.”
Trump took office last year promising “law and order” and swift deportations of those who were in the nation illegally. In fiscal year 2017, ICE conducted 226,119 deportations, a slight decrease from the previous year, but deportations resulting from ICE arrests increased 27 percent, according to federal statistics.
“The president made it clear … There’s no population off the table,” ICE acting director Thomas Homan said on Dec. 5. “If you’re in this country illegally, we’re looking for you and we’re going to look to apprehend you.”
Church versus state
Rranxburgaj, who is Catholic, was running out of options. That’s when the church intervened.
Michigan United, a local immigration advocacy group, introduced the Rranxburgajs to the people at Central United Methodist church. Founded in 1810, members say it’s the oldest Protestant church in the state.
The church has a program for homeless people that includes art classes, health services and a soup kitchen that feeds hundreds of people a day. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at the church in the 1960s during the civil rights movement.
Last year, the church announced it would become part of a network of local sanctuary churches that offer protection to undocumented immigrants with special situations. Two other nearby churches have rooms available, but the four-bedroom apartment at Central United is best suited for a family.
The apartment is carpeted, has a kitchen with laundry facilities, a dishwasher, and is one door down from a gym with a basketball hoop. Years ago, the church’s caretaker raised a family in the apartment, and it has since been used to house missionaries, church volunteers said.
Last year, an African family of six that was seeking political asylum in Canada lived in the apartment for three months, said the Rev. Jill Hardt Zundel of Central United.
“This is what our faith calls us to do,” Zundel said. “These are real people.”
Mann, the attorney, said he has talked to ICE officials, and they know the Rranxburgaj family is in the church. Caitlin Homrich-Knieling, an activist with Michigan United, said ICE will need a warrant to enter the church.
“We won’t open the door for them. They will have to break down the door and if they do, we will Facebook Live it,” she said.
The church raised more than $6,000 through a GoFundMe page to pay for groceries and car insurance for Lorenc, the couple’s 24-year-old son. He was born in Albania and has temporary protection from deportation under DACA, which was at the center of a three-day federal government shutdown this month.
The shutdown occurred after Democrats sought a budget that gave permanent residency status to DACA recipients, while Republicans pushed for money for immigration enforcement and a wall between the United States and Mexico. The shutdown ended without a resolution on DACA.
‘I’ll die without him’
At 44, Flora Rranxburgaj looks far older due to debilitating multiple sclerosis. And on the day her husband asked the church volunteers to call 911, she complained of feeling dizzy.
Zundel, the reverend, entered the apartment and placed her palm on Flora’s forehead. Flora didn’t feel feverish, but the pastor asked the volunteers to find out if any of the church’s volunteer nurses were in the building.
The two women chatted as Ded Rranxburgaj paced the living room with tissues damp from his tears balled in his hand. Maybe stress was getting to her, Zundel said to Flora.
Flora nodded. And smiled. Within minutes, Flora let her husband help her up from the couch to sit in her wheelchair. This would not be a day to go to the hospital. It would be a day to be strong, she said.
Ded Rranxburgaj said he can’t go back to Albania because his wife can’t go back to Albania. She said she would die without him
“People like her, over there, nobody cares about them,” he said. “If I leave, I leave my wife to die.”
“My last chance to be here is in God’s house”