An immigrant couple who fled gang violence in Jamaica emerged from a Philadelphia church basement Monday after spending 843 days hiding there when they lost their asylum case.
Oneita and Clive Thompson, who have seven children, three of whom are American citizens, came to the country in 2004 after Oneita’s brother was killed by gang members and Clive was threatened by them, CNN reported.
Although their asylum was denied at the time, they were granted a stay and work authorisation in the country with periodic check-ins from immigration officials. Oneita, 48, worked as a certified nursing assistant. Clive, 61, operated heavy machinery at the Cumberland Dairy processing plant.
Following a US Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) ruling, Oneita and Clive Thompson were due to be deported in 2018 and decided to take sanctuary in the First United Methodist Church of Germantown, Philadelphia just a few days before their deportation date.
“It was a nightmare,” Oneita said. “From one day living the American dream…within four days all of that was just taken away.”
Two years later, the family relocated to Tabernacle church in the west part of the city after relations with the first church became complicated. They looked to Tabernacle United Church for help. The church provided shelter and legal help.
Although there is no law preventing immigration officials from enforcement activity on sensitive areas like houses of worship, they generally try to avoid it. ICE agents are usually stopped from taking action in houses of worship, hospitals, and schools.
The couple lived in the basement with their children Christine, 18, and Timothy, 14, who are both American citizens. Their children could come and go, while their parents stayed tucked behind the stone walls and stained glass.
“At first I would not even go on the porch, I was so fearful,” Oneita told CNN.
Their request was repeatedly denied, until early December. The couple recently received a letter from the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials that now supports their stay in the country, KYW-TV reported.
“When we got the letter from ICE, I was just looking at it in shock,” Clive Thompson said in a statement. “It’s a big breakthrough – after working so long, this is a miracle. I feel like all the stress is drifting away, and everything is lighting up with joy.”
“Here we are, walking out of the church. We’re going to go back and live the American dream.”
In a Facebook video post by the advocacy group supporting the family, New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, Oneita recalled how she felt “fearful, but not doubtful.”
“I was very fearful, after losing the will to fight. I was fearful and asking myself, “How did we get here?” I turned to the Bible. God has not given us the spirit of fear, but of power and of love and a sound mind. 2 Timothy 1:7.”
“Some days…I felt I just wanted to kick the walls down. Not the physical walls of the church, but the walls of justice. The walls of racism, walls of lies, the walls of a black woman don’t have a voice of her own,” she added.
“No wonder I prayed and fasted more than I ever done before,” she concluded.
The lifting of the removal order enables the Thompsons to apply for a permanent right to remain in the United States.
It’s estimated that 40 people in 16 states are currently in sanctuary at churches in the US.