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A young DACA recipient makes it to Columbia University. But can he afford to stay?

Thompson judges himself “very optimistic,” even with college funding uncertain and his parents in church sanctuary.

Clive Thompson Jr. sits outside the First United Methodist Church of Germantown, where his parents have been living in sanctuary since August 2018. 
He was accepted to Columbia University, and has moved to New York City to begin studies, but is not eligible for federal aid because he is a DACA recipient.
Clive Thompson Jr. sits outside the First United Methodist Church of Germantown, where his parents have been living in sanctuary since August 2018. He was accepted to Columbia University, and has moved to New York City to begin studies, but is not eligible for federal aid because he is a DACA recipient.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

Clive Thompson Jr. has made it all the way to Columbia University, thanks to an outpouring of love and money from people who want a hardworking DACA recipient to have a chance at a world-class education.

The question now: Will he get to stay?

For Thompson, 23, donations topping $25,000 have enabled him to move to the campus in New York City and start classes, to begin his pursuit of a career in movie-making. But he’ll need continued fund-raising if he’s to afford an Ivy League education.

The 700,000 young, undocumented immigrants permitted to live and work in the United States under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals are ineligible for federal school aid. Thompson and other DACA students say that means while they’re allowed to work, it becomes almost impossible for most to attain the education they need to markedly improve their lives.

Some schools offer financial help, but for the most part, if DACA recipients want college degrees, they must find ways to pay for it on their own.

That has been a daily uncertainty for Thompson, whose acceptance into Columbia was the subject of a July 31 Inquirer article.

His struggle has been particularly stressful. After fleeing death threats in Jamaica and building a life in South Jersey, his parents have spent the last two years inside First United Methodist Church of Germantown, where they took sanctuary to avoid deportation.

Rather than fear what lies ahead, he said he concentrates on the people, many of them strangers, who donated money for college costs and sent messages of hope and encouragement.

“It’s truly a blessing,” said Thompson, known as C.J. “People have come out of nowhere to help. Like Jocie.”

That’s Jocie Dye, an accountant active in Northwest Philadelphia Immigrant Action and Mobilization who helped organize a GoFundMe campaign. Since July, more than 200 individuals and organizations have given — $5 or $10 or $20, while several donated $1,000, and one person even gave $5,000 toward the $70,000 goal.

Dye sees in C.J. and his family a “pure level of faith, that ‘We’ll just do what needs to be done, and have faith that the rest will come,’ " she said. "… I don’t think he ever doubted that he was going [to Columbia]. This bold belief that this is going to happen.”

Now, a South Jersey supporter, Cynthia Eisen, is hoping to supercharge that fund-raising effort, offering everyone who donates or has donated from Sept. 13 forward a chance at a weeklong stay at her six-bedroom manse in the resort town of Hilton Head, S.C. A winner will be picked on Oct. 15.

“That’s me looking at the donors and saying, ‘Thank you,’ ” she said.

Columbia provided aid of $17,000. Thompson still needs $33,389 for tuition and $31,833 for housing and mandatory health insurance, according to the GoFundMe page. He’s looking for a job in film, but will take whatever work is available to help pay for school.

Thompson’s move into university housing ended a wandering existence that saw him living between the church and a sister’s house. While Columbia has moved to virtual teaching during the pandemic, he now has his own space to study for classes that include ancient empires, Western art, and introduction to film.

He has written a script, about a father and son who take refuge in a church as a coronavirus-like disease destroys the world, turning human beings into blind, bat-like creatures. What sounds like a horror movie is, at core, the story of a boy learning to live on his own after the death of his father. When the film is shot, Thompson said, he’ll make sure the lead character is Black, since people who look like him are too often absent from fantasy fiction.

Thompson accomplished something extraordinary simply by getting admitted to the elite university. Some days, he can’t believe he’s there.

“It’s surreal,” he said, noting that many immigrants started anew in New York. “I see it as starting my life, where I want to go, to see I’m headed in that direction, as an immigrant, as a film student.”

Thompson was about 7 when his parents brought him to this country. They fled Jamaica in 2004 after gang members burned their farm and threatened to kill them. They then built an American life in far South Jersey. The U.S. government denied them asylum, yet allowed them to stay, to hold jobs, pay taxes, buy a house, and raise seven children here.

C.J. was 14 when President Barack Obama created DACA in 2012. His mother saw the opportunity and made sure he enrolled. All of the Thompson children have permission to be in the U.S.

DACA recipients, who were illegally brought into the country as children, can obtain work permits and renewable, two-year deferments from deportation. But they get no U.S. citizenship or legal status, and no path to achieve it.

For 14 years, the Thompsons lived peacefully and productively in the Cumberland County community of Cedarville — until the Trump administration put them on a fast track to deportation. The parents sought sanctuary in the church in August 2018, and younger siblings Christine and Timothy, both U.S. citizens by birth, moved in with them.

Churches are considered safe because ICE’s “sensitive location” guidelines generally bar agents from taking action in houses of worship, hospitals, and schools. Those in sanctuary can continue to fight their legal cases from inside.

C.J. Thompson has become an advocate for DACA recipients and for his parents, cooking at their fund-raisers and speaking on their behalf at rallies, churches, and schools.

Thompson’s father worked as a heavy-equipment operator at Bridgeton-based Cumberland Dairy. His mother, Oneita, enrolled at Cumberland County College, and became a certified nursing assistant at Friends Village retirement home in Woodstown. Neither has been able to work since taking sanctuary. So they cannot help their son with college costs, as they did for two older children, whose DACA status likewise barred them from federal aid.

C.J. stayed in the family home, worked the 3-11 p.m. shift at meatball-maker Buona Vita Inc. to help his parents hold onto their house, and took classes at Cumberland College. After earning his associate’s degree, he left the empty home — fund-raising events now pay the mortgage — and moved to Philadelphia.

He enrolled full-time at Drexel University in fall 2019 and winter 2020, which he paid for with loans, scholarship money, and server’s wages at the South Philly Barbacoa restaurant. He lost that job due to the pandemic.

Thompson calculates that, with his credits transferred, he should finish his schooling at Columbia in three years.

That’s if DACA survives.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the Trump administration’s attempt to end DACA, but left open the possibility that the president could try anew. The decision, recipients say, was a reiteration of how DACA strands them half-in, half-out of America, the future always uncertain.

Today, Thompson judges himself “very optimistic,” even with college funding uncertain and his parents in sanctuary.

“Seeing my parents go from nothing to building themselves up is very influencing,” he said. “I developed this work ethic that stops me from quitting, when it seems that quitting is the only choice.”