Temperatures and passions soared at First United Methodist Church of Germantown on Wednesday, as about 100 people gathered to formally welcome two immigrant families who have taken sanctuary there to block their deportations.
Supporters massed on the front steps, raising placards that read, "No human is illegal," and, "Families belong together," then moved into the church for speeches, songs, and prayers.
Both families, one from Honduras, the other from Jamaica, have children who are American citizens. Their long-standing pleas for asylum were recently turned down, but the families say deportation could get them killed in their homelands.
"You all have stepped into the heat, not just the heat outside, but the heat of sanctuary," Rabbi Shawn Zevit told the families and the crowd. "We want to stand by you in the heat. … We will stay with you all the way, until you can wake up one morning and say, 'I am a secure citizen of the country.' "
In sanctuary are Clive and Oneita Thompson, who lived in South Jersey after coming to America from Jamaica in 2004. They entered sanctuary with 15-year-old daughter Christine and 12-year-old son Timothy. Both children are U.S. citizens.
On Wednesday, Oneita was asked what remains for the family in Jamaica.
"Nothing," she said. "This is my home. This is America, which I love."
A spokesperson for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said in a statement that Oneita and Clive Thompson have overstayed the terms of their admission to the United States by nearly 14 years.
In September 2009, ICE said, an immigration judge ordered them removed from the country. They appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which dismissed their petition, the agency said.
"ICE has granted them numerous stays of removal to allow them to make arrangements to depart the United States, but even so, they failed to depart," the statement said. "They are currently immigration fugitives and subject to arrest and removal from the country once encountered by ICE."
The second family is Suyapa Reyes, 35, who came from Honduras in 2014, and her children, Jennifer, 13; Yamie, 7; Jeison, 2; and Junior, 10 months. The toddler and the baby are U.S. citizens and were not ordered to be deported with the rest of the family, Reyes said.
ICE said it could not comment on the Reyes family "due to pending legal issues."
The families are the second and third to take sanctuary in Philadelphia in the last 10 months, part of a national movement to protect undocumented immigrants at risk of deportation. Fourteen men, women, and children are now living in city churches, including the Church of the Advocate in North Philadelphia. A Mexican man who spent nearly 11 months inside Arch Street United Methodist Church in Center City was able to leave in October.
"It's disheartening that people feel like they have to take such steps to protect their families," said Philadelphia First Deputy Managing Director Brian Abernathy. "It speaks to the deep-seated fear our president has sown and the impact that ICE's aggressive enforcement actions have had."
Mayor Kenney routinely speaks up for immigrants, and the city government recently fought and won a "sanctuary city" lawsuit against the Trump administration. A federal judge ruled in June that the city's refusal to help enforce federal immigration laws was legal, and that the administration could not withhold about $1.5 million in law-enforcement grant money.
At the church on Wednesday, two people held a line hung with baby clothes, symbolizing children who have been separated from their families by the federal government. Guitarist Lauren Moyer played "In the Eye of the Storm" and people sang along.
"Friends," the Rev. Bob Coombe, pastor of First United Methodist, told those gathered in the pews, "we're in it for the long haul. However long it takes."
"Yes!" people called back to him.
The move into the Germantown church, the families' supporters said, reflects the Trump administration's desire to divide children from parents not just at the southern border, but in larger cities and towns elsewhere.
"They are defending the most precious treasure they have, their families," said Blanca Pacheco, co-director of New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, an advocacy group supporting the family.
Both families notified ICE that they have taken sanctuary in the church. They are not hiding, they said, but are challenging a federal immigration system they regard as unfair. The families say they'll stay until the government agrees to let them live and work here.