Rising from the sanctuary after years of hiding to keep away from deportation: NPR
Clive Thompson reads the letter, which means that he and his wife Oneita no longer have to fear deportation. They are joined by their son Timothy, 15. Emma Lee / WHYY hides the caption
Emma Lee / WHY
Emma Lee / WHY
After living in churches for more than two years to avoid deportation to Jamaica, Clive and Oneita Thompson found that some basic life skills had deteriorated.
When Oneita first picked up money from an ATM, she said, “Wait a minute, what are you doing again?” … I really didn’t remember how to use my card. “
Sometimes when Oneita wakes up in the morning, she needs to remind herself that the family is free.
“I always have to tell myself it’s real,” Oneita said last week, about five months after US Immigration and Customs Services sent ICE a letter saying this was the final hurdle for them they would eliminate going green cards.
In the United States, dozens of undocumented immigrants have sought refuge in churches during former President Donald Trump’s tenure because ICE has guidelines to avoid arrests in these and other “sensitive locations”. The practice of taking refuge also took place under the Obama administration, but with fewer people protected from deportation under Trump, the numbers rose.
According to Church World Service, a group tracking cases in public protected areas, those numbers have fallen significantly since then, from a high of about 50 to just 12 people.
For a time, Philadelphia had more undocumented immigrants in the sanctuary than any other city, including the Thompsons, according to the CWS. As the government changed its priorities or its individual immigration cases progressed, all three families in Philadelphia went free.
The Thompsons’ experience shows that even if an immigrant succeeds in staying in the United States by seeking refuge, the process can be a setback in years of working to establish a safe life here.
Before taking refuge in 2018, the couple had spent 14 years in the United States building a family and career in a small town in southern New Jersey.
They fled Jamaica after Oneita’s brother was killed and their farm burned. They took root in Cedarville, New Jersey – Clive worked in a dairy and packaging factory and Oneita in a nursing home – but the US government never granted their asylum requests. Instead of leaving the country on orders, they hid in two churches for 843 days.
While in the sanctuary, the Thompsons qualified for a green card through family sponsorship, but it didn’t automatically grant them freedom. Now that they are starting their lives over after two years of virtual house arrest, they have come to find new challenges.
“All of our options have been taken away,” said Clive. “How can we start life all over again? It was like a mystery.”
Some of its old pieces are still missing from this puzzle. Oneita had taken classes to become a nurse when the family went into hiding. Now many of those credits have expired and her nursing assistant license has expired.
“Sometimes I look online and see people who are going to school with me and have already graduated,” she said. “It just feels terrible.”
Clive and Oneita’s work permits and driver’s licenses were also not restored.
Although ICE is now helping her move to permanent residence, another agency is responsible for processing her green card application – the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The USCIS website shows backlogs of one to two years for processing green card applications and waiting times of two to twelve months for work permit applications.
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the agency closed its offices and suspended certain services. According to immigration advocates, more people have lost their status and fewer people have been naturalized.
“US immigration is not designed to keep people working while they wait for paperwork,” said Peter Pedemonti, co-founder and director of the New Sanctuary Movement, the group that helped bring the Thompsons to a sanctuary and their efforts to support a victory freedom. In some cases, this means immigrants have to work under the table or rely on the assistance of others as their applications move through the system.
He left the sanctuary and continued, “It’s not a magical fairy tale ending.”
Before moving out, according to Pedemonti, each family draws up a donation plan based on the costs they will have when they leave.
The Thompsons have their own email list of supporters and a robust fundraising network that has been built in the sanctuary over two years. They also run fundraisers where they cook Jamaican dinners for a crowd. During the pandemic, these became take-away meals. The last dinner on April 8 raised around $ 1,400, Oneita said.
Moving out of the church meant not only more organizational work, but also adjustment to the reality of life in a pandemic.
“It didn’t feel like the world we left out there,” said Oneita.
Their youngest, Timmy, was 12 when they moved to a sanctuary. Now he’s 15 and a head taller. Living in a church and attending middle school in a new location is difficult, his parents said. He was bullied in his last school.
Then, that year, he had to go to ninth grade virtually, which Timmy said was another adaptation.
“It was pretty difficult at first, especially since it’s my first year of high school, but I’m getting through,” he said.
Clive and Oneita Thompson moved to a house in southwest Philadelphia with their son Timothy and daughter Christine (not pictured) after more than two years in the sanctuary. Emma Lee / WHY hide caption
Emma Lee / WHY
Emma Lee / WHY
His family decided to rent a house in Philadelphia instead of returning to New Jersey full time to partially prevent him from having to change schools again. You’re still paying the mortgage on your New Jersey home and planning to split your time for the future.
Time went on in church and her family changed in the process. Their two youngest children, Christine, now 18, and Timmy, moved to the shrine with them. Christine plans to start nursing school this fall. Her older son Clive Jr. began studying film at Columbia University and dreams of becoming a famous director. CJ took direct inspiration from his family’s experiences in the sanctuary to find inspiration for a script.
For him, recent developments mean “finally being able to worry about my family and how they are doing,” said CJ. “A lot of weight [is] I shrugged my shoulders and knew they were in a real house now. “
Leaving the sanctuary also left the Thompsons with a deep appreciation for the welfare of other people, for the strangers who became supporters, and then for friends.
“We are so grateful to them and to this day they are still in our lives. They check us out every day even though we are not in church,” said Clive.
Clive and Oneita are sitting in their new living room, looking forward to not being back. They are planning a big celebration when they finally get their green cards with everyone who stepped into their lives during the sanctuary.
“As soon as I have money, I’ll par-tay!” Oneita said with a laugh.