Clive and Oneita Thompson, an undocumented Jamaican couple that has spent two years under sanctuary in a Philadelphia church, will be able to return to their home in South Jersey after the United States government dropped its deportation case against them. The Thompsons have been living at the Tabernacle United Church in University City since September of 2020, but will now be able to seek permanent US residency following the termination of their removal order. The resolution of their case will be announced officially by the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, an advocacy group that supports the family.
The Thompson’s story began in 2004 when they left Jamaica after gang members burned their farm and made threats to kill them. The US government allowed them to stay in the country but denied them asylum. For a 14-year period, the couple worked, paid their taxes, and raised seven children in Cedarville, Cumberland County. Clive worked as a heavy-equipment operator at the Cumberland Dairy, and Oneita was a certified nursing assistant and worked at Friends Village retirement home. When the Republicans took over the White House in 2016, the government moved to deport them.
Their situation received national attention as the couple fought a government that was committed to deporting everyone who did not have official permission to remain in the US. The removal of the Thompsons would have torn their family apart because their children are either legal residents of the US or US citizens.
According to Peter Pedemonti, co-director of the New Sanctuary Movement, the whole family appeared at the agency’s office on the verge of making a life-changing decision to seek sanctuary in a church. Pedemonti told them that sanctuary would be more difficult than they expected, but they were willing to make the move. Churches are considered safe locations since Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) “sensitive location” guidelines typically prohibit agents from taking action there. So mere days before they were scheduled for deportation, the couple and two of their American-citizen children took sanctuary at the First United Methodist Church of Germantown. They spent two years in that church, but once relations with the church became strained in September 2020, the family moved to the Tabernacle Church.
It was unclear why the current administration, which had denied the couple’s every previous plea, agreed to change its position, and the US Immigration and Customers Enforcement authorities have not made any comment on the matter. It is also uncertain when the Thompsons will actually leave the church premises. The transition from sanctuary to community usually takes some weeks.
Speculation about the change in the government’s approach to the Thompson’s case focused on a combination of public pressure through news coverage, protests, and phone-call and letter-writing campaigns, and the realization by ICE officials that their job security might be in jeopardy now with the incoming Biden-Harris administration, which will be moving away from the current administration’s hardline position on immigration issues.
The New Sanctuary Movement believes that the current government treatment of the Thompsons reflects the inherent racism in the US justice system. Oneita Thompson noted that, “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 represent 20% of the people who face deportation on criminal grounds, according to the Black Alliance for Just Immigration and RAICES Texas. In terms of sheer numbers, Latinos are the most deported people.
In response to his new situation, Clive, 61, said “I’m joyful, a joyful moment, with tears. He added, “Here we are, walking out of the church. We’re going to go back and live the American dream.”