Fugitives From ICE, A Family Finds Sanctuary In A Pennsylvania Church
For the last six months, Clive and Oneita Thompson have been doing familiar routines in an unfamiliar place.
In August, they traded their home in rural New Jersey for a pair of spare rooms at the First United Methodist Church of Germantown in Philadelphia in order to avoid deportation to Jamaica. The couple belongs to a tiny — but growing — group of immigrants taking refuge in churches amid the Trump administration's immigration crackdown. Nationwide, their numbers have risen from five people in 2016 to nearly 50 in 2018, according to Church World Service.
For the Thompsons, this move means sharing space with strangers — whether it's cooking in the church's industrial kitchen, or showering in a public bathroom on another floor — and being unable to follow through on some of their parenting responsibilities.
On weekday mornings, 16-year-old Christine rises from a sofa at around 6:30 a.m. She and her 12-year-old brother, Timothy, share a room that is still used by the church's theater troupe. Along one wall, there's a row of blue lockers filled with costumes, and table for doing stage makeup.
"Sometimes you wanna rest, but you gotta wait on them to finish," said Clive. He and Oneita sleep in the next room, where a church youth group used to meet.
After Christine puts on her school uniform, her parents walk her down a broad wooden staircase to a side door.
At the threshold, they stop. Clive and Oneita can't leave the church or they risk deportation.
"I can't even go with her to the bus stop," said Oneita, her voice growing thick. "It's made me really, really sad because if something happened to her, how can I go out there?"
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement avoids making arrests in so-called sensitive locations, such as schools and houses of worship. This allows immigrants who would otherwise have to leave the country to pursue a path to legal status, to stay and do so from inside.
In the Thompsons' case, it also allows them to keep their family together.
All five of their kids have permission to live in the United States. Two were born here. But in 2013, the parents lost their asylum case after years of appeals. Immigration and federal judges ruled that violence they say they fled in Jamaica — the gangs they said burned their sugarcane farm and gunned down Oneita's brother — did not qualify. The Thompsons also failed to prove they could not live safely elsewhere in Jamaica, according to court documents.
Still, under the Obama Administration, ICE didn't consider them and tens of thousands of other immigrants with strong family and community ties priorities for deportation.
Shortly after taking office, President Donald Trump issued a policy memo that stated 'no longer will exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement. that removes any exemptions from immigrants with removal orders from deportation. In 2018, ICE officers told Clive and Oneita to buy one way tickets out of the country.
David Bennion, the Thompson's immigration attorney, said if they had left when they were ordered to, they would have faced an additional penalty: a 10-year bar on returning to the U.S.
"By then, all their children would be grown, they would lose their house, they would lose the...careers that they had been building over time," he said.
Instead, they turned to taking sanctuary. Officially, they are fugitives from immigration enforcement. ICE officers declined to speak on the record for this story.
The Thompsons' hope to stay lawfully and permanently in this country now rests with their adult daughter, Angel, who has applied for citizenship. If she naturalizes, she will sponsor her parents' visas — a process that can take more than a year.
Inside the church, the couple that's used to working overtime struggles to fill their days.
As Oneita makes breakfast, Clive starts reminiscing about his old job, packaging single serving coffee creamers like the ones the church uses.
"I am one of the best operators on this [machine], me and the guy from Russia," he said, chuckling. "He's an immigrant like me too, he barely speaks English."
They both turn to bible study and prayer to pass the time. Oneita lobbies elected officials for help. With the help of the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, which supports three families living in churches in the city, they organize protests and fundraise to cover their living costs.
Throughout the day, they stay glued to their cell phones. Did Christine catch the bus? Is Timothy on his way home?
In the afternoon, they're waiting when Christine walks through the door. She tosses down her book bag and explains that she used to be more like a typical teenager.
"Like, when my mom would say "How's your day at school" or something like that, and I would just be like, "Uh, it was ok," and go up to my room," she said. Now, she says, she understands it means a lot more for the whole family to be together.
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