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Pastor: ICE took Cary church member's license, debit card before deportation

Gilles Bikindou has HIV, chronic kidney failure and diabetes. He's already suffered health setbacks while in custody, the Rev. Lauren Efird said, and deportation to the Republic of Congo would be a death sentence.

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Catherine E. Shoichet (CNN)
(CNN) — His red Nissan is in the church parking lot.

His picture is on the pew where he loves to sit.

But Gilles Bikindou wasn't at Greenwood Forest Baptist Church in Cary, North Carolina, last Sunday.

Or the Sunday before that. Or the Sunday before that. Or any of the previous Sundays since immigration authorities arrested him last month.

His advocates fear Bikindou, 58, could be deported as soon as Friday.

This week, his pastor came to Atlanta and stood outside the detention center where Bikindou is being held. She prayed for officials to have a change of heart.

Bikindou has HIV, chronic kidney failure and diabetes. He's already suffered health setbacks while in custody, the Rev. Lauren Efird said, and deportation to the Republic of Congo would be a death sentence.

"Without the life-prolonging medical care he can only receive here," Efird said at Wednesday's vigil, "he will die."

Bikindou's latest effort to remain in the United States -- an application to block his deportation on humanitarian grounds -- was denied Thursday. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said Bikindou can get the treatment he needs in his homeland.

The decision is devastating, Efird says, but she hasn't given up fighting. Even if he's deported, she still hopes an immigration judge could reopen Bikindou's case and give him a chance to return.

Efird knows Bikindou's case is one of millions.

But that, she says, is just one more reason people should pay attention.

"It feels to me like he very much has gotten caught up in the system of an administration that's bent on showing no mercy."

If it happened to a member of her church, she says, it could happen to someone in yours, too.

Detained during a check-in with ICE

Bikindou's case touches on a number of key issues that are emerging as the Trump administration steps up its immigration crackdown.

Among them:

• Detention of immigrants as they check in with officials

• Concerns about medical care in detention facilities

• The growing role of churches in protecting and advocating for immigrants

Bikindou came to the United States in 2004 on an educational visa, which he lost after refusing to testify in a case on behalf of his country's government. Fearing political retaliation, he sought asylum in the United States.

He lost that bid in 2010 when a judge ordered his deportation. Six months later, immigration authorities detained him. They released him weeks later on what's known as an "order of supervision."

For nearly eight years, Bikindou checked in regularly with Immigration and Customs Enforcement as the order required.

On January 9, he parked his car at his North Carolina church and headed to the ICE office in Charlotte with his associate pastor for what Bikindou expected to be another routine appointment.

In a black and gray messenger bag, he carried paperwork asking ICE to block his deportation on humanitarian grounds, including a signed letter from his doctors saying the United States and Canada are the only places he can get the medicine he needs.

Bikindou and the pastor walked into the ICE office together. The pastor walked out alone, carrying Bikindou's bag.

"It was a surprise. ... I was in shock," Bikindou said in a telephone interview from the Atlanta City Detention Center. Officials, he said, had given no indication that he'd end up handcuffed when he came to his check-in that day.

"He's being treated as if they discovered he's a terrorist or had been convicted of a horrible crime since the last check-in, and none of those are true," said his attorney, Hans Christian Linnartz. "We have no clue why all of a sudden they've decided to lock him up."

ICE says Bikindou was arrested because he had a deportation order on his record.

"Mr. Bikindou has been afforded full legal process in his case and was taken into custody based on a final order of removal issued by an immigration judge," ICE spokeswoman Tamara Spicer said in a statement. "ICE considers all humanitarian factors when making custody determinations and in the removal process."

ICE says it focuses on people who pose a threat to national security, public safety and border security, but no one who's broken immigration laws is exempt from potential enforcement.

"All of those in violation of US immigration laws may be subject to immigration arrest, detention, and removal from the United States, if found removable by final order," the agency said.

Immigrant rights advocates have accused ICE of focusing on "low-hanging fruit" rather than public safety threats.

Detentions during check-ins are something immigration lawyers across the country have been observing with growing frequency, according to Greg Chen, policy director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

"We continue to receive regular reports of this particular practice," Chen said.

There are more than 90,000 people who, like Bikindou, were released from custody on orders of supervision and check in regularly with ICE officials, according to the agency.

Concerns over medical care

Bikindou says getting the medicine he needs is a matter of life and death. It's something he fears will be impossible in the Republic of Congo.

"I won't get the appropriate treatment. ... I will just be dying slowly," he said.

In filings submitted as part of the case, his doctor says Bikindou's HIV infection, diabetes mellitus and chronic kidney disease require a specialized combination of medication that isn't available in many developing countries.

"Lack of access to safe and effective antiretroviral therapy would present an immediate threat to his health and survival," Dr. Christopher Sellers wrote.

Since his detention, Bikindou's health has already deteriorated, according to his pastor.

He's been hospitalized three times while in ICE custody, she said.

And at the Stewart Detention Center, a Georgia facility where Bikindou was detained earlier, it took two weeks for him to receive all the medication he required, Efird said.

A report last year from the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general said detainees at Stewart had reported "long waits for the provision of medical care, including instances of detainees with painful conditions, such as infected teeth and a knee injury, waiting days for medical intervention."

Asked to respond to advocates' criticism of Bikindou's care while in ICE custody, Spicer, the ICE spokeswoman, said, "ICE takes very seriously the health, safety, and welfare of those in our care."

Detention centers are staffed with health care providers, she said, and outside providers are used as needed.

In a letter Thursday, officials told Bikindou's lawyer they were denying his request for humanitarian parole based on urgent medical necessity.

Bikindou's medical needs can be fully addressed in the Republic of Congo, ICE Field Office Director Sean Gallagher wrote, according to a copy of the letter reviewed by CNN.

"When Mr. Bikindou is removed, he will be provided with a copy of his medical records and an ample supply of medications to be used while he seeks a permanent treatment solution in his home country," Gallagher wrote. "There is no appeal from this decision."

Bikindou's attorney is still fighting on another front: He's making a last-ditch effort to reopen Bikindou's asylum case in court, arguing conditions in the Republic of Congo have gotten worse and that critics of the government are now at an even greater risk.

Churches playing a larger role

As she stood flanked by fellow clergy members outside the Atlanta City Detention Center this week, Efird described Bikindou as a "brother in Christ."

Bikindou, she says, has a clean criminal record and has done everything immigration authorities asked, all while working at a packing plant, continuing his studies and contributing to his community.

"We won't stand by and let our brother be treated this way. ... We won't stand by and let Jesus be treated this way," she said. "Our church community will not be the same without Gilles in our midst."

Her voice is part of a chorus of religious leaders increasingly speaking out as churches play a growing role in advocating for immigrants in their congregations.

Dozens of people facing deportation have taken sanctuary in churches across the United States, according to a report released by activists earlier this year. Church leaders are also increasingly accompanying immigrants to court dates and ICE check-ins.

At Bikindou's church, leaders have placed the detained immigrant's photo and messenger bag in the pew where he always sits. Beside them lies a red clergy stole that Efird says represents the Holy Spirit and justice.

Each week, Efird said, members sit next to the items in the pew and pray for Bikindou's release.

As he waits to learn his fate, Bikindou says he's also been praying ---- that his story will send a powerful message, and that he'll be able to return to his home in the United States someday, even if he's deported.

But most of all, he said, he's praying for the people from his church.

"I'm spiritually with them," he said, "even though physically I can't be."

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