Albanian man reaches deal to stay in U.S. after 3 years in Detroit church sanctuary

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit — For the first time in three years and five months, Ded Rranxburgaj is free to leave the Central United Methodist Church where his family took refuge fearing his deportation.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement had labeled Rranxburgaj a fugitive for evading deportation ordered under the Trump administration in 2018.

After seeking to have his case heard in the U.S. Supreme Court, Rranxburgaj's lawyer said an agreement reached Tuesday with the Department of Justice calls for his client to drop a lawsuit against ICE. In exchange, Rranxburgaj's humanitarian visa will be restored and allow him to remain in the country to care for his ill wife. 

Ded and Flora Rranxburgaj, in their apartment at Central United Methodist Church on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021. They've been living in the church for the past three years.

"The Rranxburgaj's celebrated with the members of the Central United Methodist Church, who protected them for more than three years," Rranxburgaj's attorney, George Mann, told The Detroit News. "This is a huge success for Mr. Rranxburgaj. He avoided having to remain in sanctuary for many more months while the case progressed — and we could not have done it without this community."

The arrangement has not brought a full stay of Rranxburgaj's removal, but it does allow him to see the outside of the church while being under ICE surveillance. 

Rranxburgaj and his wife, Flora, will stay at the church until they find a new home and while Rranxburgaj awaits a driver's license. They plan to return to Southgate where they lived in a small apartment before the ordeal, said the Rev. Jill Hardt Zundel.

"Ded wants to drive off from here," she said. "He wants to find work, then find a first-floor apartment close to that job so that he can go and check on Flora during his breaks. That's most important to him."

Rranxburgaj, 51, immigrated 20 years ago from Albania with Flora and son Lorenc, seeking asylum from the communist government. While they were denied asylum, both Rranxburgaj and his wife obtained humanitarian visas to live legally in the United States.

Flora, 48, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis here, was granted a permanent humanitarian visa. Rranxburgaj, who had no criminal record, was granted a temporary visa to be Flora's caregiver, and it required him to check in annually with ICE.

Rranxburgaj worked two jobs as a cook at a coney island diner and a construction worker to support his growing family — their second son, Eric, was born in 2003 — and pay for Flora's medication.

In a recent interview with The News, Rranxburgaj said the family was getting by before former President Donald Trump's administration pledged a "deportation force" that would remove millions of unauthorized immigrants. Rranxburgaj learned at his annual visit to ICE in 2017 that his visa wouldn't be renewed. Trump had ordered all non-permanent visa holders deported.

Ded and Flora Rranxburgaj speak Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021 about his immigration case in their apartment at Central United Methodist Church, where they've been living for more than three years.

Rranxburgaj was scheduled to be deported on Jan. 25, 2018, and ICE wanted proof he planned to leave, he has said. So he paid $800 for a one-way ticket to Albania from Detroit Metro, but he didn't board the plane.

Instead, the family moved into Central United's outdated living quarters, overlooking Comerica Park with a small kitchen and four bunk beds.

In the meantime, Hardt Zundel along with activists from the civil rights coalition Michigan United held marches and helped the family fight the fugitive status in federal court.

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan ruled it did not have the jurisdiction to deal with Rranxburgaj's fugitive classification and passed the case to the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, which ruled the same, Mann said. 

While waiting to see if the case would reach the Supreme Court, Mann said he struck a deal last month with Colin Kisor, deputy director of the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Immigration Litigation. If the suit was dropped, Rranxburgaj's humanitarian status would be restored as it was under the Obama administration, Mann said. Kisor on Wednesday deferred all comments to the DOJ's press office.

Mann said he took Rranxburgaj and his wife from the church to report to the Detroit ICE offices on Tuesday to finalize the arrangement, ending his time in sanctuary. 

"Together, we have laid the groundwork for future immigrants who have been wrongfully deemed fugitives by ICE to demand their rights in courts across the country," Mann said. 

When asked what impact the case would have on others with the fugitive status, ICE spokeswoman Alethea Smock said the agency makes custody determinations on a case-by-case basis in accordance with U.S. law and Department of Homeland Security policy. It considers factors like criminal records, risk of flight and if the individual poses a potential threat to the public, in each case while adhering to priorities, guidelines and legal mandates.

"ICE continues to implement interim civil immigration enforcement priorities directed by DHS to focus its limited resources on threats to national security, border security, and public safety. ICE carries out its duty to enforce the laws of the United States in accordance with the Department’s national security and public safety mission," Smock said in a Wednesday statement. She did not comment further on Rranxburgaj's case.

When Rranxburgaj went to the ICE offices, Hardt Zundel said, he "was terrified" and "wasn't sure if they were going to arrest him."

"But thankfully, they were very kind to him, and he now has a phone app to check in once a month," she said. 

Rranxburgaj wasn't available for an interview Wednesday. When asked by reporters Tuesday what he'd do for fun after regaining a measure of freedom, Hardt Zundel said Rranxburgaj responded: "I don't do fun. I work and try to take care of my family."

Mann and Hardt Zundel said Rranxburgaj's health also has declined while he's been confined to the church. In the last few years, the stress of the situation has led to high cholesterol and hypertension, she said. Hardt Zundel launched a GoFundMe to help Rranxburgaj and his family get back on their feet.

"We're excited for them but think it will be weird not having them around," she said. "It's exciting also because we've already had phone calls from other families in need of a sanctuary."

The 200-year-old church declared itself a sanctuary in 2017, Hardt Zundel has noted. 

U.S. Rep., Debbie Dingell, gives her remarks on Ded Rranxburgaj's immigration case during a press conference at Central United Methodist Church in downtown Detroit, Monday, August 3, 2020

In May 2018, Hardt Zundel and Michigan United organizer Caitlin Homrich-Knielin led a march from Detroit to the state Capitol building in Lansing. The 90-mile march took 10 days and each night, the pair would stop at a place of worship along the way to tell the family's story.

Arthur Park, a parishioner of the church and retired professor of education for Wayne State University, said it was three years ago this week when he joined the march to stop the separation of families like Rranxburgaj's. 

"Their being with us was a blessing that gave our congregation more than a sense of pride," said Park, 85, of Rranxburgaj and his family."

Park said the church has a long history of attempting to do what is right and has been regarded as the "Conscience of the City."

"Ded grew a garden on our rooftop balcony and donated the vegetables to our project for the homeless," said Park of Royal Oak. "He helped install a new floor in the chancel area of our sanctuary. ... He, Flora and their two sons are now part of our Central family."

Mann said the church and the community were Rranxburgaj's saving grace.

"He's a very simple guy that missed out on a lot," Mann said. "In the last few years, his oldest son graduated from college and was married, his youngest recently graduated from high school. He deserves the sympathy and help he got. He's a good family man."

Twitter: @SarahRahal_