At age 22, DACA recipient Clive Thompson Jr. has accomplished something extraordinary: admission to the elite Columbia University in New York City.
But his dream could end at the Ivy League gates. He doesn’t have the money to pay even a fraction of the estimated $75,000 annual bill.
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He and the 700,000 other young immigrants who are permitted to live and work in the United States under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals aren’t eligible for federal school aid. And crowdsourcing a college education is impractical — a GoFundMe effort begun two weeks ago by a family friend has, so far, raised $1,050.
So what does Thompson have? Inspiration from his parents, undocumented immigrants Oneita and Clive Thompson Sr.
They fled their Jamaican homeland in 2004 after gang members burned their farm and threatened to kill them, and 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.
For 14 years, the Thompsons’ lives were indistinguishable from those of their neighbors in the Cumberland County community of Cedarville — until the Trump administration took power and put them on a fast track to deportation. Now, they’ve spent nearly two years in sanctuary inside the First United Methodist Church of Germantown, fighting to avoid removal.
CJ, as he’s known, was protected from deportation by his DACA status. He stayed in the family home as his parents took sanctuary, working late-night shifts at a meatball plant to help keep up the mortgage on their house.
“My parents’ battle has taught me how to continue to push forward despite setbacks,” Thompson said. “They both sacrificed a lot to bring me and my siblings to the United States. They looked in the face of danger and said, ‘No, we won’t quit.’ ”
Thompson wants to take film and media classes, intending to become a director.
“He’s a very thoughtful, loving person,” said Peter Pedemonti, codirector of the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, which helped the family move into the church and supports them now. “Really sharp. A big vision.”
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the Trump administration’s attempt to end DACA, a decision that protected some 700,000 young immigrants in America, at least for the time being. All were, as children, illegally brought into the country by their parents.
But the court left open the possibility that President Donald Trump could try anew to end the program — a reiteration, recipients said, of how DACA strands them half-in and half-out of American society, granted some rights but denied others, the future always uncertain.
DACA recipients 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. They are allowed to attend American colleges and universities, but only if they can somehow afford it. Most states, like the federal government, offer no financial aid programs for them.
“DACA authorizes us to work,” Thompson said, “but keeps us in a place of work where we can’t really improve ourselves.”
CJ was only 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 United States. Younger siblings Christine and Timothy, both U.S. citizens by birth, moved into the church when their parents took sanctuary in late August 2018. It fell to CJ to maintain the family house in South Jersey.
He felt the isolation. He worked the 3-11 p.m. shift at meatball-maker Buona Vita Inc., his pay helping the family hold on to its home, and took classes at what was then Cumberland County College.
Always, he said, his parents emphasized education as a way to a better life.
His father, a heavy-equipment operator at Bridgeton-based Cumberland Dairy, took money from his retirement savings to help CJ pay for classes. His mother started coursework at the Cumberland college, advancing to become a certified nursing assistant at Friends Village retirement home in Woodstown.
“Getting into the Ivy League is one thing, but how to get funding is another thing,” said Oneita. “It makes me angry that he can work and pay taxes, but he’s not able to get a foot up as a Black man in this country. … To not just be an immigrant, but a Black man and immigrant, the journey is harder.”
It’s unclear what aid Columbia itself might offer.
The university says it’s dedicated to removing barriers to college and operates one of the most generous financial aid programs in the country. The school is committed to meeting all of the demonstrated financial need for first-year or transfer students pursuing their first degree, regardless of citizenship status, according to the university website.
Columbia did not immediately respond to questions about what aid might be available to students in Thompson’s position.
“We tell him, ‘Never give up,’ ” his mother said. “America is still the best place on Earth. This is our home. One day we’re going to get out [of sanctuary]. … We still believe change will come, and things will get better.”
For DACA recipients, things may first get worse.
The loss before the Supreme Court has not stopped Trump from attacking the program. The administration now says it will reject new requests for DACA and will reduce renewals from two years to one.
That’s consistent with the policies of a president who, in one of his first official acts, freed deportation officers from Obama-era restraints, allowing them to arrest people who, in many cases, committed no crime and had long resided in the United States. Trump has accused immigrants of using “fraudulent or meritless asylum claims to gain entry into our great country,” and then trying to stay permanently.
Churches are considered safe places because ICE’s “sensitive location” guidelines generally bar agents from taking action inside houses of worship, hospitals, and schools.
Those who seek sanctuary can continue to fight their legal cases from the inside. And sometimes they win. In March, Honduran immigrant Suyapa Reyes, who took sanctuary with her four children in the same church at the same time as the Thompsons, won her freedom after 18 months, when the government reversed itself and said she could stay in this country.
Thompson recently moved to Philadelphia, where he lives between the church and a relative’s house; fund-raisers have enabled the family to keep their New Jersey home. He enrolled full time at Drexel University in fall 2019 and winter 2020. He took out loans, was awarded some scholarship money, and worked as a server at the South Philly Barbacoa restaurant to fund his education, but lost his job amid the pandemic.
Getting accepted at Columbia, he said, was a dream fulfilled. He was at the church when he received the message from the university, and ran into the next room to tell his mother and father the big news.