Judge questions sanctuary for immigrant in Detroit church

During a court hearing Wednesday, a federal judge questioned an Albanian immigrant's sanctuary in a Detroit church, suggesting that Ded Rranxburgaj was staying there to avoid being arrested and deported.

Albanian immigrant Ded Rranxburgaj, 50, gives his remarks during a press conference to support his upcoming immigration hearing at United Methodist church in downtown Detroit.

Rranxburgaj, a 50-year-old cook, took refuge along with his ill 46-year-old wife, Flora, in the Central United Methodist church on Woodward in downtown Detroit 2 1/2 years ago.

On Wednesday, Rranxburgaj's appellate attorney Nora Ahmed argued before a three-judge panel in the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati that her client's deportation case should be heard in U.S. District Court in Detroit and that the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement should not be able to label him a fugitive and deport him before that happens.

Ahmed argued that even in ICE's own field manual, a person isn't a fugitive unless they ignore a notice to surrender and that he hasn't received one. Ahmed said Rranxburgaj has been "transparent and honest" with ICE and his attorney about why he and his family took refuge in the church.

"We have a situation of ultimate transparency where Mr. Rxanburgaj was clear that he was going into sanctuary to prevent the premature death of his wife," Ahmed argued. 

Judge Richard Griffin asked Ahmed if her client was flagrantly "ignoring" authorities by not showing up for hearings.

"Isn't your client in sanctuary to avoid arrest?" asked Griffin. "He's in sanctuary to try to keep them from attempting to arrest him."

Ahmed answered, "I would say he is in sanctuary awaiting a merit determination on his stay of removal application."

Griffin said Rranxburgaj refused to check in with ICE. He asked if the case was moot because Rranxburgaj asked ICE for a one-year stay in 2018 and that his request for that time has expired.

"I didn't see him applying for another stay," Griffin said. 

Ahmed said her client hasn't received a decision on the request for a stay. She added that the U.S. District Court in Detroit has refused to hear the case. 

Attorney Max Weintraub, who is representing the U.S. government in the case, argued Wednesday that Rranxburgaj is recycling issues that have already been settled.

"This court has addressed this issue already," said Weintraub. "This case doesn't present anything new there, and to the extent that Mr.  Rranxburgaj attempts to reframe or rephrase the question ... the court shouldn't honor that."

Weintraub said "it's fairly clear" that Rranxburgaj "is seeking to block his deportation by hiding in plain sight"  and that he has gotten further review of his case that he otherwise would have.

No decision was made Wednesday. Griffin and the other two judges, Julia Gibbons and Amul Thapar, said they would take the matter under further review.

Flanked by about 60 supporters Monday at the Detroit church, Rranxburgaj made an impassioned plea to the appellate judges to let him stay in the United States. He came to the U.S. 20 years ago and lived in Southgate before seeking sanctuary.

Rev. Dr. Jill Hardt-Zundel, gives her remarks on the upcoming immigration hearing for Ded Rranxburga, 50, during a press conference at Central United Methodist church in downtown Detroit, Monday, August 3, 2020. Ded Rranxburgaj in an Albanian immigrant who has been living inside Central United Methodist church for the last 2 years. He will have another chance for freedom on Wednesday during a immigration hearing in the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.

According to a statement Monday from the local office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement: "Ded Rranxburgaj, a citizen of Albania, was ordered removed by an immigration judge in 2006. In 2009, the Board of Immigration Appeals dismissed his appeal of the immigration judge’s decision, affirming his removal order. In October 2017, ICE allowed Mr. Rranxburgaj to remain free from custody while making preparations for his departure pursuant to the judge’s order. He failed to depart as instructed and is currently considered an ICE fugitive."

Central United Methodist Pastor Jill Hardt-Zundel said ICE  labeled Rranxburgaj a "fugitive" after he entered the sanctuary of the church and that his attorney has argued ICE had "not done its job" of adjudicating the petition to stop his deportation before he and his wife sought refuge.

The couple have two sons, one of whom who recently graduated from the University of Michigan-Dearborn.