Oneita and Clive Thompson fled Jamaica in 2004 after gang members burned their farm and threatened to kill them. In the U.S., the government denied them asylum but allowed them to stay. The Thompsons, for 14 years, worked, paid taxes, and raised their seven children in Cedarville, a small town in New Jersey’s Cumberland County. Clive, 61, worked as a heavy-equipment operator at Bridgeton-based Cumberland Dairy while Oneita, 48, was a certified nursing assistant.
They lived a normal and quiet life until the start of the Trump administration. In August 2018, the ICE told the undocumented Jamaican couple that it would not extend their stay for removal and were to report to it within days to be removed from the country.
The Thompsons then visited the office of the advocacy group, the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, which subsequently helped them find shelter while supporting their legal proceedings. A few days before they were to be deported, Clive, Oneita, and their two youngest children, who are both American citizens, took sanctuary in the First United Methodist Church of Germantown. They spent two years there before moving to Tabernacle church in September 2020.
While living behind the walls of the two churches, their two children were free to move in and out of the church grounds. Clive and Oneita however couldn’t even leave to get groceries else they will be arrested and deported.
Generally, churches are seen as safe places since ICE “sensitive location” guidelines hinder agents from “taking action” in houses of worship, hospitals, and schools, a report by The Philadelphia Inquirer stated.
Immigrants who take sanctuary are also able to buy time for their legal cases to progress while advocates also step in to pile pressure on authorities to rescind their decisions, the report added. That was the move the Thompsons took, and after 843 days of living in the two churches, the couple walked free on Monday, ready to go back to their South Jersey home.
They said the federal government dropped its deportation case against them, meaning they can now seek permanent residency in the U.S., a move that is already in progress. “When we got the letter from ICE, I was just looking at it in shock. It’s a big breakthrough – after working so long, this is a miracle. I feel like all the stress is drifting away, and everything is lighting up with joy,” Clive said in a statement.
It’s been tough seeking refuge in churches, where they slept, ate and bathed. “At first I would not even go on the porch, I was so fearful,” Oneita told.
“Some days I just wanted to hide in the walls of the church, and other days I felt badass and just wanted to kick the walls down … Not the physical walls down. Not the physical walls of the church, but the walls of injustice, the walls of racism, the walls of lies, the walls of black woman don’t have a voice,” Oneita said.
Getting deported would have separated them from their children and would have ruined their chances of living the American dream. Living in the churches was a way to continue their fight to stay in the U.S., the couple said. While in the churches, they made several requests to stay ICE’s order for removal as they applied for permanent residency but their requests were denied.
Then in May, their daughter, Angel, became an American citizen. She filed an I-130, a “Petition for an Alien Relative,” which reports say is the first step in allowing alien relatives establish permanent residency in the U.S. During Thanksgiving, the Thompsons went ahead to file a motion to reopen their asylum case with the Department of Justice’s Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA).
The ICE subsequently joined the family’s motion before the BIA to reopen the deportation case after pressure from church, community members, and officials, including Sen. Bob Casey and Rep. Dwight Evans, who visited the couple in sanctuary.
“Upon the BIA’s issuance of a decision, the Thompsons were no longer subject to a final order of removal, thereby removing any imminent concerns of possible removal,” an ICE official told. Though the Thompsons are yet to gain permanent residency, they are satisfied with the experience of being free again. It’s estimated that 40 people in 16 states are currently in sanctuary at churches in the U.S.