Hand in hand, Oneita and Clive Thompson danced out of the Tabernacle United Church in Philadelphia, their fists raised in victory. The Jamaican couple had spent nearly 2½ years living in churches to avoid deportation.
Finally, they could walk free.
“We won,” Oneita Thompson, 48, told supporters gathered outside the church this week with bells and handmade signs. It had been a grueling fight with many setbacks, but she said she never lost hope that this day would come.
In 2018, after 14 years living and working legally in the United States and raising their seven children, Oneita Thompson said she received startling news from Immigration and Customs Enforcement: She and her husband had four days to pack up and leave the country.
The couple had immigrated to the United States in 2004, fleeing gang violence and seeking asylum. Their application was denied, but they were granted permission, in one-year increments, to stay. They bought a home in Cedarville, N.J., where Oneita Thompson worked as a nursing assistant caring for older people, and Clive Thompson as a heavy machine operator.
But as the Trump administration cracked down on immigration, the life they had worked to build was suddenly upended.
Returning to Jamaica would mean having to separate from their children, as it was too dangerous to take them there, Oneita Thompson said.
“It wasn’t even an option,” she said.
She contacted Peter Pedemonti, co-director of the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, who presented what felt to her like the only viable option: seeking sanctuary in a church. For decades, families have lived in churches to avoid deportation and buy time to persuade immigration officials to allow them to stay. ICE has designated houses of worship “sensitive locations” and typically stays clear of them.
Across the country, about 40 people are now living in sanctuary in churches, a practice that long predates President Donald Trump, Pedemonti said. But the length of their sanctuary has stretched longer and longer as the administration has radically changed immigration laws, making it more difficult to get asylum.
In another Philadelphia church, a woman from Mexico has been in sanctuary with her four children for three years, he said.
“During the Trump administration, we have had families who have spent half or three-quarters of his term taking refuge in congregations, fighting to keep their families together,” Pedemonti said. “As a country, we need to sit with that for a minute.”
In August 2018, the Thompsons packed up their belongings and moved into First United Methodist Church of Germantown with two of their children, saying goodbye to the outside world. Four of their children no longer lived at home, and one stayed there alone. The family lived in the church for two years before moving to Tabernacle United in September.
“Going behind the walls of a church, you cannot see through the stained glass windows,” Oneita Thompson said. “It’s like a prison away from prison. I would not wish that on my worst enemy.”
The two children who joined them were both minors at the time and, because they are U.S. citizens, they were free to come and go. But their parents could go only as far as the church doorway, where they waved goodbye each morning as their children left for school.
The couple spent their days praying, fasting and trying to stay healthy despite the isolation by drinking green smoothies and exercising. They emailed Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Rep. Dwight Evans of Pennsylvania, all of whom visited them in the church and supported their cause.
At the same time, members of the New Sanctuary Movement were holding protests and vigils outside ICE offices.
Every month, Oneita Thompson cooked a Jamaican dinner, bringing hundreds of people together to raise money for the family, as the couple could no longer work but still had children to support and a mortgage to pay.
Those dinners stopped when the coronavirus pandemic swept the country, deepening their sense of seclusion.
“When covid hit, isolation is not even the word,” Oneita Thompson said. “You feel like you have nobody at all. You’re just standing in the walls of the church.”
After more than two years of confinement, the couple got word in November that help would arrive via their eldest daughter. Because she is a U.S. citizen, she was allowed to submit a “petition for an alien relative,” giving the Thompsons a path to stay in the country legally. But before they could apply, ICE had to support reopening their case and dropping the deportation order.
Oneita Thompson got the news Dec. 10. She immediately printed out the email so it felt real.
“I had to physically look at it, touch it,” she said. “I literally felt numb.”
When the Thompsons finally walked outside freely, Clive Thompson could not stop dancing. Oneita Thompson asked what was going through his mind, and his thoughts perfectly echoed hers.
“My spirit is free,” he replied.