Hand in hand, Oneita and Clive Thompson danced outside the Tabernacle United Church in Philadelphia, fists raised in victory. The Jamaican couple had spent nearly two and a half years living in churches to avoid deportation.
Finally, they could walk freely.
“We won,” Ms. Thompson, 48, told supporters who had gathered outside the church this week with hand-made bells and signs. It had been a grueling fight with many setbacks, but she said she never gave up hope that this day would come.
In 2018, after 14 years living and working legally in the United States and raising their seven children, Ms Thompson said she received startling news from Immigration and Customs Enforcement that she and her husband had four days to do their suitcases and leave the country.
The couple immigrated to the United States in 2004, fleeing gang violence and seeking asylum. Their request was refused, but they were granted permission, in one-year increments, to stay. They bought a house in Cedarville, NJ, where Ms Thompson worked as a nursing assistant caring for the elderly, and Mr Thompson as a heavy machine operator.
But as the Trump administration cracked down on immigration, the life they had worked for was suddenly turned upside down.
Returning to Jamaica would mean having to separate from their children, as it was too dangerous to take them there, Ms Thompson said.
“It wasn’t even an option,” she says.
She reached out to Peter Pedemonti, co-director of the New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia, who presented her with what she felt was the only viable option: seeking refuge in a church. For decades, families have lived in churches to avoid deportation and to buy time to persuade immigration officials to allow them to stay. The ICE has designated places of worship as “sensitive places” and generally stays away from them.
Across the country, about 40 people now live in shrines in churches, a practice that predates President Trump, Pedemonti said. But the length of their sanctuary has grown increasingly longer, as the administration radically changed immigration laws, making it more difficult to obtain asylum.
At another church in Philadelphia, a woman from Mexico has been at the shrine with her four children for three years, he said.
“During the Trump administration, we have had families who spent half or three quarters of their tenure taking refuge in congregations, fighting to keep their families together,” Mr. Pedemonti said. “As a country, we have to sit with this for a minute.”
In August 2018, the Thompsons packed their things and moved into Germantown’s First United Methodist Church with two of their children, saying goodbye to the outside world. Four of their children no longer lived at home and one was left alone. The family lived in the church for two years before moving to Tabernacle United Church in September.
“Going behind the walls of a church, you can’t see through the stained glass,” Ms. Thompson said. “It’s like a prison away from the prison. I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy.
The two children who joined them were both minors at the time and, being U.S. citizens, they were free to come and go. But their parents could only go to the door of the church, where they bid farewell each morning as their children left for school.
The couple spent their days praying, fasting and trying to stay healthy despite isolation by drinking green smoothies and exercising. They emailed Senator Cory Booker from New Jersey, Senator Bob Casey from Pennsylvania, and Representative Dwight Evans from Pennsylvania, who all visited them in the church and supported their cause.
At the same time, members of the New Sanctuary Movement were organizing demonstrations and vigils in front of the ICE offices.
Every month Ms Thompson cooked a Jamaican dinner, bringing together hundreds to raise money for the family as the couple could no longer work but still had children to support themselves and a mortgage to pay.
Those dinners ended as the coronavirus pandemic swept across the country, deepening their sense of isolation.
“When Covid struck, isolation isn’t even the word,” Ms Thompson said. “You feel like you have no one at all. You’re just standing within the walls of the church.
After more than two years in lockdown, the couple learned in November that help would arrive via their eldest daughter. Because she is a US citizen, she was allowed to submit a “petition for a foreign relative,” giving the Thompsons a way to stay in the country legally. But before it could submit an application, the ICE had to support the reopening of its case and the abandonment of the deportation order.
Ms Thompson got the news on December 10. She immediately printed the email to make it feel real.
“I had to look at him physically, touch him,” she says. “I literally felt numb.
When the Thompsons finally came out free, Mr. Thompson couldn’t stop dancing. Mrs. Thompson asked what was going on in her mind, and her thoughts echoed hers perfectly.
“My mind is free,” he replied.