For a Jamaican couple, a broken asylum system makes church sanctuary both refuge and jail

The Thompsons are part of a small, but growing number of immigrants trying to avoid deportation by taking sanctuary in Philly.

Oneita Thompson prays next to her husband, Clive, left, inside the First United Methodist Church of Germantown on Monday, Nov. 12, 2018. The couple is from Jamaica and has lived in the United States since 2004. They moved from their home in Cedarville, New Jersey, into the church last year, bringing their two youngest children, Christine, 16, and Timothy, 12, with them. (Heather Khalifa/The Philadelphia Inquirer)

Why are more immigrants trying to avoid deportation by taking sanctuary in Philly than any other major city in the U.S.? Reporters Laura Benshoff and Jeff Gammage answer that question in a two-part series on WHYY’s The Why, in partnership with The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Click here to listen to part one. Click here to listen to part two. Subscribe to The Why on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher.

The sky is still dark when Clive and Oneita Thompson rise from bed on a cold winter morning, immediately faced with the most stressful part of their day.

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“Christine, time for school,” Oneita calls into the next room, where the couple’s 16-year-old daughter sleeps on a faded beige couch.

The teenager gets up, pulls on her uniform, tucks her hair into a gray wool beanie.

Christine Thompson, 16, puts on her school uniform inside the First United Methodist Church of Germantown as she gets ready for school on Monday, Nov. 12, 2018. (Heather Khalifa/The Philadelphia Inquirer)

All three make their way down the worn wooden steps of the gothic Philadelphia church that has been their home since August.

To the United States government, Clive, 59, and Oneita, 46, are immigration fugitives, illegal aliens who thwarted their lawful deportation to Jamaica by taking sanctuary amid the pews and crosses. Four times American authorities and courts rejected their plea for asylum.

To their supporters, the Thompsons are good people caught in terrible circumstances, who fled to this country after gangsters burned their farm and threatened to kill them. The same U.S. government that denied them asylum also allowed them to stay, to hold jobs, buy a house, and raise seven children. For 14 years, the Thompsons lived lives indistinguishable from their neighbors’ in far South Jersey, until the Trump administration put them on a fast track to deportation.

Near the foot of the stairs, beneath a stone archway in the First United Methodist Church of Germantown, father, mother and daughter come to a door — and stop.

“This is how far I can get,” Oneita says.

Christine is an American citizen, free to leave the church and walk the four blocks to the SEPTA bus stop. But she doesn’t know the city, having grown up surrounded by sylvan farms and murky bogs in Cedarville, population 776.

Her parents worry: What if she gets lost or hurt and they can’t go to her side, trapped by the same church walls that keep them beyond the reach of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents?

The girl shoves open the door and is gone.

Oneita Thompson watches from the door of the First United Methodist Church of Germantown as her daughter Christine, who is 16, leaves for school on Monday, Nov. 12, 2018. (Heather Khalifa/The Philadelphia Inquirer)
Oneita Thompson watches from the door of the First United Methodist Church of Germantown as her daughter Christine, who is 16, leaves for school on Monday, Nov. 12, 2018. (Heather Khalifa/The Philadelphia Inquirer)

For the next 30 minutes, Oneita and Clive hang on a cellphone, awaiting a prearranged call or text from Christine at every station along the five-mile route: I’m at the bus stop. I’m on the bus. I’m near the school. One call comes late, and an agitated Oneita scolds, “You can’t forget!”

Only when Christine crosses the threshold of International Christian High School, in the Crescentville neighborhood, do Clive and Oneita relax. Then they turn to the question that dominates their days: Now that they’ve gotten into sanctuary, how do they get out — and still stay in America?

A broken system

If there’s one point of agreement among partisans on opposite sides of the immigration debate, it’s this: The asylum system is broken. It’s understaffed, overwhelmed, and slow to the point of cruelty.

The Thompsons have been both victims and beneficiaries of that dysfunction.

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Today, the asylum system staggers under an unprecedented workload. The Migration Policy Institute found that the number of people who came to the U.S. and then applied for asylum quintupled from 28,000 in fiscal 2010 to 143,000 in 2017. Ultimately, only about 20 percent of all claims are approved. The rate of refusal has grown in each of the last six years, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.

Immigration advocates charge that the system turns away people who genuinely need and deserve safe haven. They argue that it’s far too arbitrary. Coming from Mexico? Good luck. About 88 percent of Mexican asylum claims are denied. Coming from Egypt? Welcome. Only 11 percent of Egyptian filings are turned down. The chances of getting asylum are better in New York than Houston, and always better if a lawyer is involved, according to TRAC.

People who want fewer immigrants entering this country criticize the system for a different reason: its inability to produce and impose finality within a reasonable amount of time.

A judge’s denial of asylum doesn’t mean that people leave. Or that, in many cases, anyone tries to make them go.

Under President Obama, people like the Thompsons were low priorities for deportation. Immigrants who had no criminal record, who had strong community and family ties — particularly American children — could be granted renewable stays of deportation, as long as they regularly checked in with ICE under what are called “orders of supervision.”

Those orders were intended as a bridge, allowing migrants to live, work and pay taxes in the U.S. until they could find an avenue for legal status or Congress passed national immigration reform. While they waited, often for years, they had children, built lives, and set down roots.

That changed when President Trump took office.

In one of his first official acts, the president freed deportation officers from Obama-era restraints, allowing them to arrest people who in many cases committed no crime and had long resided in the U.S. The president has accused immigrants of using “fraudulent or meritless asylum claims to gain entry into our great country” and then trying to stay permanently.

He wants them out.

“There’s a tendency for people to say, ‘You let me stay all this time.’ But it was always on an agreement that it was temporary,” said Roy Beck, president of NumbersUSA, a group that seeks to lower all forms of immigration. “If you don’t get asylum, the response has to be that you leave the country. … I really have little sympathy for them.”

ICE has an estimated 2.2 million undocumented immigrants under supervision, but lacks the staff and training to deport them, according to a 2017 study by the Office of the Inspector General.

Clive and Oneita Thompson didn’t sneak into the U.S. They entered legally, on visitor visas, in 2004. When those documents expired later that year, the government permitted them to stay, first while their asylum case went forward, then under ICE supervision.

C.J. and Catherine Achee, in the library of their historic home in Upper Deerfield Township, have supported the Thompson family for years. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Friend and former employer Catherine Achee sees that a couple who started with nothing now has a home, a mortgage and a car, belongs to a church, and pays taxes. She supports tough Trump immigration policies but said it’s not fair to let people stay for years and then make them leave. What’s more, she said, the Thompsons are precisely the kind of people who should be allowed to stay.

“It just breaks my heart what’s happening to them,” said Achee, of Upper Deerfield, N.J. “I thought, frankly, that the [government] program was going to be that they’d take out the dangerous people, but not to go for people like the Thompsons.”

Three Philly families

Today more people live in sanctuary in Philadelphia than in any other city in the nation: 14 men, women and children, including four minors who are U.S. citizens. That’s partly a quirk of family size — two of the three families each have four children. But it’s also because New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, an 11-year-old interfaith group, has rolled out the welcome mat, activating its large network of churches and volunteers.

Across the country, as the Trump administration ramps up removals and shuts down avenues of relief, more people are betting on sanctuary — from five in 2016 to 46 this year, according to Church World Service. They constitute a minuscule fraction of immigration cases. But their open defiance, and the publicity they generate, makes them symbols and spokespeople for all those who resist the deportation authority of the federal government.

“Sanctuary is truly a last resort for very desperate people,” said Rev. Shawna Foster, minister of a Colorado church that housed an undocumented woman for 10 months.

WHYY and The Philadelphia Inquirer spent three months reporting on one family’s experience in close church confinement, a family that took an all-or-nothing gamble when their American life splintered.

Like many other immigrant families, the Thompsons comprise an assortment of statuses. Twelve-year-old Timothy, who also lives in the church, is a U.S. citizen like his sister, Christine. Both were born in the U.S. Two older children, Shannakay Thompson-White, 23, and Clive Thompson Jr., 21, have DACA protection. The three eldest, Angel Brown, 26, Debbie Thompson, 32, and Tracey-ann Thompson, 33, are permanent residents, married to U.S. citizens.

Only Clive and Oneita confront imminent deportation.

Houses of worship are considered safe places, because ICE guidelines generally bar agents from taking action inside churches, hospitals and schools. Keep within the walls, migrants know, and they can stay in the country to fight their legal cases. In Arizona, a Mexican man is nearing three years inside a Phoenix church. But dare to step outside, and immigration authorities may be waiting. Last year in North Carolina, a Mexican man was arrested after 11 months in sanctuary when he left a Durham church for what he thought would be a brief meeting about his case.

All three Philadelphia families frame their situations as life-or-death, based on threats from gangs in Mexico, Honduras, and Jamaica. All had their pleas for asylum denied. All notified ICE of their locations, insisting they were not hiding but challenging what they say is an unfair immigration system.

Honduran migrant Suyapa Reyes and her four children, two of whom are American citizens, live in the same church as the Thompsons. Eight blocks northwest in Germantown Mennonite Church, Mexican immigrant Carmela Apolonio Hernandez and her four children have spent 13 months in sanctuary.

“We can see future cases coming into sanctuary,” said Blanca Pacheco, co-director of New Sanctuary Movement, which supports the families. “Not because it’s the easy choice. It’s the hardest choice, but the choice to stay alive.”

‘Like I was begging’

On the second floor of First United Methodist, in the space that serves as the Thompsons’ bedroom, living room, den and closet, Clive and Oneita struggle with what amounts to self-imposed house arrest. Until taking sanctuary in late August, Oneita worked as a certified nursing assistant at Friends Village retirement home in Woodstown, N.J. Clive was a heavy-equipment operator at Bridgeton-based Cumberland Dairy.

In the church, time seems to stretch out forever.

Outwardly, Oneita never falters. She fills the hours by rallying support online and contacting politicians she thinks could help.

She and Clive spend hours praying and reading scripture. They watch TV, search the web for news from Jamaica, look forward to weekend visits from their older children.

Fifty miles away in South Jersey, their son, Clive Jr., endures his own isolation in the family’s quiet house. He used to help Christine and Timothy complete their homework, then stay up late writing computer code for classes at Cumberland County College.

Now Clive Jr. works the 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. shift at meatball-maker Buona Vita Inc., where his pay helps the family hold on to their house.

Clive Thompson Jr., 21, of Cedarville, N.J., planned to continue college this year. But since his parents, natives of Jamaica, got a deportation order, he's been busy looking after their house and helping to pay their mortgage while they take sanctuary in a Philadelphia church. (Emma Lee/WHYY)
Clive Thompson Jr., 21, of Cedarville, N.J., planned to continue college this year. But since his parents, natives of Jamaica, got a deportation order, he's been busy looking after their house and helping to pay their mortgage while they take sanctuary in a Philadelphia church. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“It feels like there’s a heavy weight,” the son said. “My dad would always tell me, ‘Go to school. I don’t want you doing what I’m doing. Get an education.’ Now I’m doing what he did.”

The strain of sanctuary shows on the father’s face. On many days, he stalks the halls wearing a winter jacket and a knit cap, stopping to stare out the exit-door windows at the people going by. He can’t get warm. Food has no taste.

“This is like jail,” he said.

Clive and Oneita once proudly provided for the family. Now, they can’t even go to the grocery store. Instead, they write out shopping lists for others to fill.

“Like I was begging,” Oneita said.

To take Christine and Timothy to Jamaica would put their lives in danger, the couple says. To leave them in this country would risk long-term separation — the parents could be hit with multiple 10-year bans on reentry if they left.

“We weren’t going to be separated from the kids,” Clive said.

“Or go to Jamaica,” Oneita added.

“There’s a casket waiting for us,” Clive finished.

A death in Central Village

Oneita Thompson says this is what happened to her brother, Christopher Santana Lewis, 28, a master tailor in the southeast Jamaican community of Central Village: A gang ordered him to pay money or die. He did not pay.

The first gunshots on Nov. 4, 1999 nearly tore off his left foot. Once the assailants stopped him from running, they moved in for the kill. When they were done, Lewis’ neck looked like someone had tried to cut off his head with a hatchet.

His death served as bloody warning to anyone who might defy the gang.

Family members stand next to Christopher Lewis’ grave. (Provided by by the Thompson family)

Nearly 20 years later, Oneita still struggles to talk about her brother’s death. But here’s the problem: She can’t prove he was murdered. As evidence of his violent end, which helped propel the Thompsons out of Jamaica, Oneita offers a well-preserved copy of his funeral program and a photograph of a young man in a casket.

She has no news clipping, no obituary, no police report. The local police in Jamaica told WHYY and the Inquirer that homicide records from 1999 had been lost or misplaced.

Oneita admits the lack of hard evidence may have hurt the family in the eyes of immigration authorities. The modern chaos of her homeland does nothing to help them now.

To people in the U.S., Jamaica is a Caribbean vacation destination, a land of award-winning golf courses and golden, reef-lined beaches. But outside the resort gates, a different Jamaica threatens, one where organized gangs rob and kill with little fear of being punished. The U.S. State Department has issued a travel advisory, warning Americans that murders are common and sexual assaults occur even at resorts.

People who are well-off can be targets. Extortion is common. Returning Jamaican expats and their European spouses have been killed by criminals. The Thompsons say if they go back after 14 years in the U.S., the gangs will assume they have money.

Police can be indifferent to crime — or worse, deliberately kill suspects and even join with gangs to carry out murders for profit.

“They are judge, jury and executioner, deeply feared by people in all walks of life,” said historian and journalist Laurie Gunst, author of “Born Fi’ Dead: A Journey Through the Jamaican Posse Underworld.”

For a long time, the Thompsons managed to stay clear of trouble. They were farmers, leasing 24 acres in the community of Bernard Lodge, a place known for producing sugar and rum. They grew mostly sugar cane, but also cucumbers, peppers and the leafy greens known as callaloo, used to make the popular Caribbean stew of the same name.

Farm and family thrived. The Thompsons sent their children to private schools, and they owned a car, a luxury in a country where fewer than two in 10 people have a vehicle.

Oneita would get her hair styled and nails painted, and success allowed her to occasionally visit the U.S., where she scoured South Jersey flea markets for farm equipment. Christine was born here during one of those trips.

That life changed in 2004, according to court testimony.

Clive recounted how he went to check the farm’s water supply — and found the canal had been blocked by members of the gang that killed his brother-in-law. The men confronted him.

“Champion,” one of them said, using the nickname Clive had earned as a top grower, “I need to have a talk with you.”

The message: Join the gang and give us money, or we’ll kill you and your family.

He refused. More dangerously, he immediately reported the encounter to the police, infuriating Oneita, who was sure that corrupt officers would tell the gang an “informer” had spoken against them.

Three days later, the Thompsons saw smoke and flames rising from their fields.

After that, they did the only thing they could think of: They ran.

Oneita Thompson, left, holds her husband Clive Thompson's hand inside the First United Methodist Church of Germantown, where the couple is seeking sanctuary on Monday, Nov. 12, 2018. (Heather Khalifa/The Philadelphia Inquirer)
Oneita Thompson, left, holds her husband Clive Thompson's hand inside the First United Methodist Church of Germantown, where the couple is seeking sanctuary on Monday, Nov. 12, 2018. (Heather Khalifa/The Philadelphia Inquirer)

The courts say no

The Thompsons’ legal case started poorly, and then got worse.

After entering the country in 2004, Oneita filled out the asylum forms herself. She had no lawyer to help. And that can make all the difference.

Asylum is a legal means of staying in this country, a way that the U.S. protects people in danger, a shield that has been expanded and strengthened over time by case law.

Immigrants must show a legitimate fear of persecution — specifically, one based on their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.

An immigrant’s own story from his own mouth technically can be enough to warrant asylum. But practically, supporting evidence in the form of official documents, news clippings, and sworn statements can make or break or a case.

Some judges approve nine of 10 asylum applications, others one in 10.

Asylum initially grew out of the Holocaust and the Cold War, the first underscoring the need for international human-rights protections, the second revealing a useful foreign-policy tool. Accepting the fleeing citizens of its enemies served humanitarian ends and gave America legitimate reason to gloat on the world stage. On the other hand, people running from governments friendly to the U.S. had a difficult time getting asylum, according to Deborah Anker, a law professor at the Harvard Law School Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program.

The Refugee Act of 1980 aimed to fix that, embracing broad humanitarian goals and establishing some of the very rules against which President Trump has railed: Legal status doesn’t matter when petitioning. Asylum can be sought from outside and inside the U.S. Migrants can claim asylum even after deportation proceedings against them have begun.

“How did we get from the Gestapo rounding up the Jews,” said Philadelphia attorney William Stock, past president of the national chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, “to, ‘I’m going to make a claim based on, ‘I’m rich and not able to go to the police when the gangs want my money?’”

The answer, he said, is that over decades, individual cases and judges’ decisions have expanded the grounds on which asylum can be awarded.

At the Thompsons’ initial hearing, an immigration officer denied their claim. They lost again in Immigration Court, where a judge said the family provided no corroborating evidence of their claims.

Oneita Thompson prays in First United Methodist Church of Germantown next to her husband, Clive, after they sent their daughter Christine off to school on Monday, Nov. 12, 2018. (Heather Khalifa/The Philadelphia Inquirer)

They appealed to the Board of Immigration Appeals, lost again, then petitioned to the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

There, the court knocked down each of the Thompsons’ arguments.

The couple, the court said, were victims of general criminal activity, not the specialized sort of harm required for asylum. In fact, the court said, by initially running to live with her mother after the farm fire, Oneita had shown she could stay safely in Jamaica. The police had tried to help, the court said, accompanying Clive to his farm to look for the gang members.

In January 2013, nine years after the Thompsons arrived in America, the Third Circuit officially rejected their asylum claim. Still, no one hurried to deport them.

By mid-2017, when the Thompsons arrived in Newark to check in with ICE agents, they found the atmosphere had turned cold. Security was heavier. Electronic locks allowed people to enter and stopped them from leaving.

“You need to go back to Jamaica,” an ICE officer told them.

They were instructed to buy one-way plane tickets and report back to ICE, which they did, only to learn they had been granted another stay of deportation.

Then, on Aug. 21, 2018, an ICE officer phoned Clive at work: Buy new airline tickets and fax copies to us. No more reprieves. Go by Aug. 29.

“You can’t even believe it’s happening,” Oneita said. “You’re looking at your children and everybody’s crying and you’re trying to stay strong, but you have to run to the bathroom to just scream.”

Still, a hope remained.

Older daughter Angel Brown was months from becoming eligible for citizenship. If she became a citizen, she could sponsor her parents to eventually become permanent residents. Nothing was guaranteed. And it could take years. But if Clive and Oneita left the U.S., immigration regulations would keep them out for at least a decade.

As the days ran down, Oneita worked the phone looking for help, finally hearing about New Sanctuary Movement and its co-director, Peter Pedemonti.

She dialed the NSM office, thinking, “Please God, let someone pick up the phone.” A male voice answered.

“Can I speak to Peter?”

“This is him.”

A search for strategy

NSM co-director Pacheco tells the Thompsons and several supporters, gathered in the church late last year for a weekly strategy session, that she has good news: Petitions supporting the family’s plea to stay in America have topped 3,000 signatures.

The applause has barely died down when immigration attorney David Bennion speaks up. Actually, he says, it might take 10 times that number to get noticed by influential politicians.

Community activists hold a meeting with those seeking sanctuary inside the First United Methodist Church of Germantown on Monday, Nov. 12, 2018. (Heather Khalifa/The Philadelphia Inquirer)

Oneita and Clive press him. If that’s the case, then what does work? What has been done in other places to enable people to safely leave sanctuary?

Bennion is frank: not much.

“In all of the sanctuary work that I’m connected to in other states, the only success so far has been in Texas, has been through, not pressuring ICE, but pressuring legislators,” says the lawyer, who represents all three Philadelphia families.

Pennsylvania Democratic Sen. Bob Casey has shown keen interest, visiting the Thompson and Reyes families at the church, boosting their spirits and promising to do all he can to help. Maybe, Pacheco says, they should try to contact Sen. Cory Booker in New Jersey. He may run for president, and that spotlight could make him more likely to help.

A few weeks earlier, NSM held a noisy demonstration outside the ICE office at Eighth and Cherry streets, where 30 people waved signs, sang songs and demanded that federal officials let the families remain in the country. TV cameras showed up. Passing motorists honked their horns.

Now, at the table, people wonder if they should mount a regular protest, maybe every two weeks? They’re settling on dates when Clive cuts in.

“I think it’s a good idea of having a short-term strategy,” he says, “but what is the effect of it?”

Publicity is crucial to any exit plan, but holding a demonstration twice a month could backfire if attendance or energy flagged. Legislators might think the family didn’t have much support.

Bennion points out that, at any rate, ICE has largely proven immune to protests and petitions.

Reverend Bob Coombe, pastor of First United Methodist Church of Germantown, right, and Marion Brown, left, who was close to the Guatemalan family who took sanctuary in the church in the 1980’s, in the sanctuary of First Methodist. (Michael Bryant/The Philadelphia Inquirer)

The Rev. Bob Coombe, pastor of First United Methodist, notes in an interview that ICE can decide, on its own, to pause the deportation process, allowing both families to leave the church and pursue their cases from positions of freedom. But he expects to host the families for at least a year.

“It gives them a safe place to pursue their options,” he says, “but it also provides time when we as a society can see the injustice of separating children from their parents.”

In an interview, two senior Philadelphia ICE officials — they agreed to speak only if their names were withheld, citing “credible threats” against agents — said their officers simply enforce the nation’s immigration laws. That applies to the Thompsons.

The ICE officials declined to discuss specifics of the Thompsons’ case.

“We’re very empathetic for the aliens who say they have no desire to return,” one said. “But without immigration reform, we can’t change the law.”

A church, a home, a family

This time, on her way home from school, Christine remembers to call her parents: She’ll be late because she missed the bus.

“We’ll be waiting for you,” Oneita tells her, staking out the back door of the church. “Put your hands in your pockets so you won’t be freezing.”

Oneita Thompson hugs her daughter Christine, who is 16, inside the First United Methodist Church of Germantown before she leaves for school on Monday, Nov. 12, 2018. (Heather Khalifa/The Philadelphia Inquirer)
Oneita Thompson hugs her daughter Christine, who is 16, inside the First United Methodist Church of Germantown before she leaves for school on Monday, Nov. 12, 2018. (Heather Khalifa/The Philadelphia Inquirer)

Twenty minutes later, at about 3:30 p.m., Christine trudges up the sidewalk, through a glass door, and into the arms of her mother and father.

Emotionally, she says, she’s been up and down, good days and bad. She turned 16 in sanctuary. Will she still be here at 17?

Christine has plans for the future. She wants to go to Princeton University, major in business, then become CEO of her own company. But, she worries, what would those dreams mean if her parents were sent away?

At least in sanctuary, Christine says, “I get to still be with my parents, and talk about my day, and hug them.”

This story was produced in partnership with The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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