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Jamaican couple to leave Philly church sanctuary after two years as government drops deportation case

The news marks a dramatic end, or new beginning, to the saga of a couple who fled to South Jersey from Jamaica after gang members threatened to kill them.

Clive Thompson and wife Oneita at Tabernacle United Church on Friday, Dec. 18, 2020. They'll be leaving the church after more than two years living in sanctuary  to avoid deportation.
Clive Thompson and wife Oneita at Tabernacle United Church on Friday, Dec. 18, 2020. They'll be leaving the church after more than two years living in sanctuary to avoid deportation.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

An undocumented Jamaican couple who have spent more than two anguished years living in the isolation and uncertainty of sanctuary now are poised to walk free from a Philadelphia church.

Clive and Oneita Thompson say the federal government is dropping its deportation case against them, and they’ll soon return to their South Jersey home and the lives they abandoned in August 2018. The termination of their removal order allows the Thompsons to seek permanent residency in the United States, a process now underway.

“My whole heart is ready to go,” Oneita, 48, said in an interview from inside Tabernacle United Church in University City.

A formal announcement from New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, the advocacy group supporting the family, is expected Sunday.

The news marks a dramatic end — or new beginning — to the saga of a family that fled Jamaica in 2004 after gang members burned their farm and threatened to kill them. The U.S. government denied them asylum but allowed them to stay.

For 14 years, the Thompsons worked, paid taxes, and raised their seven children in the tiny Cumberland County community of Cedarville. Then the Trump administration took power and moved to deport them.

“I’m joyful, a joyful moment, with tears,” Clive, 61, said. “Here we are, walking out of the church. We’re going to go back and live the American dream.”

It was unclear when the Thompsons might depart the church. Typically, the transition from sanctuary to community can take weeks, as belongings are packed and moved. Nor was it clear why the Trump administration, having denied the couple’s every entreaty, suddenly agreed to change course. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials did not immediately reply to a request for comment on Sunday morning.

From the day the Thompsons stepped into sanctuary, prayer and fasting for freedom have been a regular part of their lives.

“Doubt was never in my mind,” Oneita said. “I was very afraid — afraid of losing my children, of being deported. But if I allowed doubt in my mind, I would have fallen apart. I was fearful, but not doubtful.”

The couple’s situation gained national attention as a drama that pitted a hardworking, God-loving couple against an administration bent on deporting all who lack official permission to be here. Their removal would have broken apart their family, since their children are either citizens or live legally in the United States.

Clive was a heavy-equipment operator at Bridgeton-based Cumberland Dairy, while Oneita, a certified nursing assistant, worked at Friends Village retirement home in Woodstown.

New Sanctuary Movement codirector Peter Pedemonti recalled the day when the entire Thompson family, children and grandchildren, showed up at the agency office, on the verge of a life-altering decision. Churches are considered safe places because ICE “sensitive location” guidelines generally bar agents from taking action in houses of worship, hospitals, and schools.

Pedemonti told them the hard truth: Sanctuary would be lonesome, long, and tougher than they could imagine.

“The spirit and laughing and energy that they had, I remember thinking, ‘They can do this,’” he said. “We’ve seen that spirit and faith and energy over the last two years.”

Only days before their scheduled deportation, Clive, Oneita, and their two youngest American-citizen children, Christine, 18, and Timothy, 14, took sanctuary in the First United Methodist Church of Germantown. They spent two years there. But relations with the church strained, and in September 2020, the family moved to Tabernacle church.

“It’s a little bit like a Christmas miracle,” the Rev. Katie Aikins, Tabernacle’s pastor, said of the news.

She credited Clive and Oneita for exceptional strength, and as people whose commitment to immigrants goes beyond themselves. They want to keep fighting for others, she said, “and as a church we want to do the same.”

“I sense both that they’re so happy and relieved and, I don’t know if it’s ‘nervous,’ but a little bit fearful of next steps. It’s not just like you can reverse time. … It’s going to be a transition for them, and that may be difficult.”

The Thompsons and New Sanctuary Movement said the Newark Office of the Principal Legal Advisor, which represents ICE in removal proceedings, joined the family’s motion before the Board of Immigration Appeals to reopen the deportation case — and then terminate it.

Speculation about the government’s motives centered on some combination of circumstances:

  1. The pressure of news coverage, vigils, protests, phone calls, and letter-writing campaigns became more than the Trump administration wished to tolerate. Sen. Bob Casey and Rep. Dwight Evans visited the couple in sanctuary, and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker also tried to help.

  2. Trump administration officials had a change of heart, finally accepting that the Thompsons deserved to stay. Their son Clive Jr., a DACA recipient, now attends Columbia University, supported by hundreds of people who raised more than $40,000 to get him started at the Ivy League school.

  3. Appointed officials at ICE and related agencies realized that with a Biden administration set to move in a new direction, a continued, hard-line stance might not offer the greatest job security.

New Sanctuary Movement believes the government’s treatment of the Thompsons exposed the justice system’s racism. The group earlier quoted Oneita: “As Black immigrants, we did everything right, but we still don’t get a chance. We are behind the walls of a church because we are Black.”

Seven percent of noncitizens in the United States are Black, but they make up 20% of those facing deportation on criminal grounds, according to the Black Alliance for Just Immigration and RAICES Texas. In sheer numbers, Latinos are by far the most deported people.

With deportation proceedings ended, the Thompsons are eligible to legally live and work in this country through the connection to their daughter Angel, who became an American citizen in May. She filed what’s called an I-130, a “Petition for an Alien Relative,” which allows qualified relatives to settle here.

President Trump has repeatedly attacked family-based immigration programs as “chain migration,” saying newly arrived relatives may be “truly evil.” First lady Melania Trump used the same process to help her Slovenian parents become U.S. citizens in 2018.

Oneita said that perhaps the hardest part of sanctuary was walking into the unknown, leaving behind their lives in South Jersey — and then, once inside, realizing how completely dependent they were on others. They couldn’t even leave the church to buy groceries, lest they be arrested and deported.

The goal of sanctuary is to buy time, for legal cases to go forward, for advocates to generate pressure, for elections to change the direction of government.

But for the undocumented immigrants inside church walls — currently about 40 people in 16 states — the world shrinks. The early excitement of climactic battle fades, and the days grow long. Depression can be common. The isolation can be overwhelming.

Oneita said there were some good times, family times when they were cooking together, knowing friends and supporters would join them in the church that evening. Enveloped in the warmth of that group, the couple could imagine a future restored.

But during the last nine months, the pandemic has largely cut off the flow of visitors who provide emotional support, and hampered the Thompsons’ ability to hold fund-raising dinners.

Philadelphia has been the site of four major sanctuary cases during the last four years, and the tactic has so far been successful in three.

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 the country.

In 2017, Javier Flores Garcia left the Center City church that he’d entered shortly after the November 2016 election. He was granted permission to live and work in the United States under a visa for those who help police solve a crime.

When the Thompsons leave Tabernacle United, only one family, Carmela Apolonio Hernandez and her four children, will remain in sanctuary. This month marks two years inside for them, currently at the Germantown Mennonite Church.

The Thompsons say they’re eager and ready to quickly return to as normal a life as possible, and trust that other parts of their post-sanctuary future will fall into place.

Clive said the first thing he wants to do might seem mundane, but it will be special to him and Oneita: Go to Wawa, the one on Highway 77 in Upper Deerfield Township. In the mornings before work, they used to stop there and grab breakfast. They would sit in their car and eat, just watching the people go by, and thinking that they were happy and lucky to be there together.