Family that became symbol of ‘sanctuary’ movement in Philly returns home

CJ Thompson (center) with his parents Oneita and Clive Thompson-Lewis (right), and his siblings, Christine, 17, and Timothy, 14. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

CJ Thompson (center) with his parents Oneita and Clive Thompson-Lewis (right), and his siblings, Christine, 17, and Timothy, 14. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

A Jamaican couple that spent more than two years living in Philadelphia churches as they faced deportation walked free Monday morning.

Oneita and Clive Thompson left the Tabernacle United Church in West Philadelphia shortly after 10 a.m. as supporters rang bells and speakers blasted choir music nearby.

They’d spent the prior 843 days in “sanctuary,” living in churches as a way to avoid deportation and becoming symbols of the movement that grew in response to the Trump administration’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants.

The Thompsons have lived in the U.S. for more than 15 years, settling in South Jersey. Three of their seven children are U.S. citizens, but the Thomsons are undocumented and say they fled Jamaica to avoid gang violence.

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The U.S. government did not approve their asylum case, and in August 2018 moved aggressively to deport them. That prompted the family to take sanctuary — first at First United Methodist of Germantown and then at Tabernacle United in University City.

U.S. Imimigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) recently informed the Thompsons that the agency would support their case to stay in the country. It’s unclear why the federal government reversed its position.

For the Thompsons, that reprieve means a chance for them to reestablish their lives in this country after a harrowing two years.

“Some days I just wanted to hide deeper in the walls of the church,” said Oneita Thompson, the family matriarch. “And other days I … just wanted to kick the walls down. Not the physical walls of the church, but the walls of injustice, the walls of racism, the walls of lies.”

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