At a rally and court hearing this week, supporters of an Albanian immigrant with an ailing wife who is avoiding deportation by living in sanctuary at a Detroit church are renewing their calls for him to stay in the U.S.
At a federal appeals court hearing Wednesday in Ohio, an attorney for Ded Rranxburgaj, 50, argued that he should not be deported, noting that he has been open with authorities about his status.
But some of the judges with the United States Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit who heard the case pushed back against her arguments, suggesting that Rranxburgaj is a fugitive.
"Can you explain to me why he's not a fugitive?" asked U.S. Circuit Judge Amul Thapar during the hearing, which was audio streamed online. "Isn't your client flagrantly ignoring authorities, not appearing for a hearing, not agreeing to appear? That would be no different than in a criminal case, a fugitive abroad where we know where the person is, and can't get them back to the country."
Nora Ahmed, the attorney representing Rranxburgaj, said that he has not been hiding where he is and has been transparent with authorities.
ICE declared Rranxburgaj a fugitive in January 2018 after he sought refuge in Central United Methodist Church in Detroit, where he has lived now for more than two years along with his wife, Flora Rranxburgaj, who has multiple sclerosis.
Born in Albania, Rranxburgaj traveled from Albania to Canada and then came to the U.S. 18 years ago as a visitor, along with his wife. He overstayed his visa and become undocumented, but was allowed to stay in the U.S. for years. A cook at a Coney Island restaurant in metro Detroit, he said he had to stay in the U.S. to help his ill wife, who is unable to take care of herself.
They have two sons: one is a U.S. citizen and another is a DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipient who graduated from the University of Michigan-Dearborn.
After Donald Trump became president and toughened immigration enforcement, ICE said he had to leave the U.S. He then took sanctuary inside Central United Methodist Church, the first immigrant to live in sanctuary in Michigan during the Trump administration.
More: ICE: Immigrant staying in Detroit church is a fugitive
At a rally on Monday, he and his supporters held a rally in his support ahead of the Wednesday court hearing.
"How is a Coney Island cook, who is trying to care for his wife while MS (multiple sclerosis) is ravaging her body, a threat to homeland security?” said the chuch's pastor, the Rev. Jill Hardt-Zundel ,at the rally, according to a news release from Michigan United, a liberal advocacy group.
U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, also spoke at the rally in support.
“Ded is an American in all but paper,” Dingell said, according to Michigan United. "Ded is taking care of Flora. Her health is not good. If he were to leave, she would probably die. This community has become her family."
ICE Detroit has said before that it doesn't target people in churches.
"Current ICE policy directs agency personnel to avoid conducting enforcement activities at sensitive locations unless they have prior approval from an appropriate supervisory official or in the event of exigent circumstances," ICE Detroit spokesman Khaalid Walls said last year. "The locations specified in the guidance include schools, places of worship and hospitals."
In June 2018, attorneys for Rranxburgaj filed a lawsuit against ICE asking the court to block his removal and declare that he was not a fugitive.
In September 2019, Judge Denise Page Hood of the U.S. District Court of Eastern Michigan dismissed the case, saying the case involved issues that are outside her jurisdiction. The case was then appealed and on Wednesday, three judges with the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals hear the case.
During the hearing, his attorney, Ahmed, told the court that Rranxburgaj is not like a fugitive because he has been "transparent with ICE and counsel about exactly where he's going and why."
"Rranxburgaj was clear that he was going into sanctuary to prevent the premature death of his wife," Ahmed said. "That honesty and transparency is what we see."
In addition to Thapar, another one of the three judges, Richard Allen Griffin, also questioned some of the claims made by Rranxburgaj's attorney, Ahmed.
"Isn't your client in sanctuary to avoid arrest?" Judge Griffin asked. "That's the purpose of sanctuary, is it not? He's in sanctuary to try to keep them from arresting him."
Judge Griffin also raised the issue of whether the case may be moot because the original request by Rranxburgaj was for the court to grant him a one-year stay in the U.S. It's been more than a year since the lawsuit was filed in 2018 and so that could invalidate the case, he said.
"Hasn't the one year expired?" Griffin said.
Ahmed replied: "It has not yet been adjudicated, so it's still alive."
Pastor Hardt-Zundel said that immigrants like Rranxburgaj are victims of a "broken immigration system."
"He has been unable to leave the church because of some misguided view that he is a threat to our nation," she said.
Contact Niraj Warikoo: firstname.lastname@example.org or 313-223-4792. Twitter @nwairkoo