Man facing deportation gets sanctuary in Detroit church

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

All Ded Rranxburgaj wanted for his family when he came to Michigan from Albania 17 years ago was the American Dream.

While he raised two sons here, with one in college, the journey hasn’t been easy. He has worked as a cook or in construction. His wife was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair. He bathes her and handles her care when he’s not at his job.

On Tuesday, facing deportation on Jan. 25, Rranxburgaj, 48, sought refuge at Detroit’s Central United Methodist Church, one of many declared sanctuaries for immigrants facing expulsion as the Trump administration cracks down on illegal immigrants living in the United States.

“To not see my wife very sick and to leave my sons and not ever see them again, that’s very, very hard for me and for my family,” Ded Rranxburgaj said during a news conference Tuesday at the church.. “I’m asking for the help of the people to help my family stay together.”

Church leaders, along with Michigan United, a grassroots organization that has been advocating for immigrants in the United States illegally, joined the news conference to say that the Rranxburgaj family will stay in an apartment at the mammoth church indefinitely. Central United declared itself a sanctuary church in 2017 to help immigrants facing deportation. They provided sanctuary last year to an African family seeking to remain in the country, church officials said.

“This person is not a terrorist. He’s not a threat to your country. He’s trying to make a better life,” said the Rev. Jill Hardt Zundel, senior pastor of Central United Methodist. “We of privilege already have that. We don’t understand what it means to go on this track, to have to do that. And I follow a man named Jesus who flipped tables over, who tried to stop oppression. And that’s what we’re doing here.”

His wife is not facing deportation because of her debilitating condition but he has felt pressure from immigration authorities to plan to leave since October, even buying a one-way plane ticket to Albania, as required by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.

“Everything, I got perfect,” Ded Rranxburgaj said in an interview from his apartment at the church after the news conference, referring having to no criminal record in his 17 years here. “I’m working and home. Working and home. I’ve done everything. I go by the rules. But they told me, ‘You’re time’s done.’ I told them, ‘I’ve got a wife who’s very sick, I’ve got two kids. I can’t afford (to be deported).’

“To force me to leave my family here to die ... I think that’s a little bit wrong,” he said. “And to buy a ticket, too.”

Caitlin Homrich-Knieling, an immigrant family defense organizer for Michigan United, said Rranxburgaj has done everything U.S. immigration officials have asked him to do and has applied for every type of immigrant status.

Flora Rranxburgaj said if her husband is deported, “My life is finished.”

Deportations have sprang up across the country, including locally. On Monday, Jorge Garcia said goodbye to his wife and children on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday when he was deported to Mexico after 29 years of living in the United States. His wife and two teen children are citizens.

Trump took office last year, promising to increase deportations and end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program set by President Barack Obama to allow young undocumented immigrants to remain in the United States.

Rranxburgai’s son Lorenc, 24, qualifies for DACA and is enrolled at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, his family said. Eric, 15, was born in the United States and is involved in the band at a high school in Southgate, where the family has lived for 17 years.

Homrich-Knieling said the family is “brave” to take the risks of seeking refuge. But the government, she said, and the condition of his wife and the status of his two boys have left him with few options.

“To defy deportation is scary and it is serious,” she said. “And we’ve had countless people come through the doors of Michigan United in the last year. And we’d say, there are ways for you to defy this.”

Homrich-Knieling said the church workers and staff will do all they can to protect the rights of immigrants staying on their property and that ICE agents, according to their own protocols, are loathe to “arrest anybody in churches, schools or hospitals.”

“... That just looks bad,” she said. “All of America gets up in arms when you see 5-year-olds crying when a parent gets arrested.”

Zundel said the church is serious about its efforts to help the family.

“It’s not just keeping him here so he’s safe, but it’s fighting tomorrow and every single day to change the systems that cause this oppression,” the pastor said. “It’s not just, oh, we’re going to keep him here and this is good PR for the church. We’re also going to step up and speak out.”

Parishioner Linda Priest, a retired teacher from Belleville, said this is what living her faith is all about — protecting the less fortunate.

“We’re trying to live what we say we believe,” Priest said. “We can’t just sit back and say we’re Christians. We have to act like Christians. And this man needs our help. We want to help him. That’s the kind of congregation we are.”

(313) 222-2620


Staff Writer Charles E. Ramirez contributed.