Yet again, immigrant families facing deportation have taken sanctuary in Philadelphia-area churches in direct defiance of federal authorities. But this time, it’s a little different: two families, from two nations, both with parents facing deportation, have taken refuge together in a Germantown Methodist church.
Jamaican parents Clive and Oneita Thompson left their native island 15 years ago due to increasing gang violence. They came to the U.S. on a temporary visa, and two of their seven children were born here. But last month, their application seeking asylum was rejected. The parents were told to turn themselves in to an ICE office one week ago to be deported.
Instead, they sought sanctuary along with their two youngest children at the First United Methodist Church of Germantown, in coordination with New Sanctuary Movement Philadelphia, an anti-deportation activist organization, which they publicly announced outside the church on Wednesday.
“I am really, really so overwhelmed this morning with the love and support you showed to us,” Oneita Thompson told a crowd of supporters outside the church on Wednesday. “Being in sanctuary makes you nervous, you don’t know what to expect. But I thank you, thank you so much.”
Prior to taking sanctuary, the family owned a home and lived in South Jersey. Oneita worked as a nursing assistant at a seniors facility, while Clive worked at Cumberland Farms. They had come to the U.S. in Jamaica in 2004 due to gang violence, which culminated in Clive’s brother’s murder. The family said that gang leaders told Clive he would have to join the gang, and when he refused, their farm was burned down, leading them to flee to the U.S.
The US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Philly office said the Thompsons were “fugitives.”
“Oneita Thompson and Clive Thompson, both Jamaican nationals, overstayed their terms of admission to the U.S. by nearly 14 years,” an ICE spokesman said in a statement. “In September 2009, an immigration judge ordered them removed from the U.S. The pair appealed their case all the way up to the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, which dismissed their petition for review. 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. They are currently immigration fugitives and subject to arrest and removal from the country once encountered by ICE.”
Along with the Thompsons and their children, the family of Suyapa Reyes, a Honduran national, will also take sanctuary. She came to the U.S. four years ago, fleeing violence in her native country.
“I am taking sanctuary because I was about to be deported back to my country, and I was going to have to leave my children here,” said Reyes, who entered sanctuary with four of her five children, on Wednesday.
Immigration attorney David Bennion, director and founder of the Free Migration Project, is representing both families and said he believes all three parents should be eligible to stay.
The Thompsons, he said, have an adult daughter with a pending citizenship application who, if successful, could file a family petition.
“They have a clear path to lawful citizenship … but for ICE intervening and saying, ‘No, we’re not going to wait for that to unfold, you have to leave now,'” Bennion said.
Reyes, a victim of domestic violence in Honduras and the U.S, should have been granted asylum, he asserted, but has not yet been evaluated for a potential U-visa, which he said was certified by Philly police.
“We have outstanding requests to two of the DHS [Department of Homeland Security] agencies, ICE and USCIS [U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services], to basically put a hold on everything until this U-visa can be adjudicated, and so far, we’ve not heard back. But the pressure was constant on her to leave, notwithstanding the type of relief that she has available,” Bennion said. “Unfortunately, this is part of a broader trend of this administration … that’s their overriding objective, to deport as many non-citizens as possible. … Family unity, even viable paths to legal status, all go out the window when it comes to essentially deporting people for political gain, which is what this administration is doing.”
ICE declined to comment on Reyes’ case due to “pending legal issues.”
It is not the first time families have taken sanctuary in the Philly area. In 2014, Honduran immigrant Angela Navarro took sanctuary in a Kensington church; just two months later, she was granted a two-year stay on her deportation order to pursue citizenship. Mexican immigrant Javier Flores took sanctuary in late 2016 in a Center City church, and after a year, left after his case was moved to the deferred action list.
Mexican mother Carmela Hernandez, who took sanctuary in December 2017 in the Church of the Advocate in Kensington along with her four children, is still there, according to NSM.
The Thompsons and Reyes families have no idea how long they’ll be in sanctuary.
“The Trump administration is unrelenting in their escalation of more and more aggressive, more and more extreme policies,” said New Sanctuary Movement executive director Peter Pedemonti on Wednesday. “Faith communities must step up and must be ready to meet this.”