From sanctuary to the Ivy League: A DACA recipient’s journey to Columbia University

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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)

Clive “CJ” Thompson appreciates a good narrative arc.

The 22-year-old from South Jersey has had a lot of time to examine his own story, since his parents Clive and Oneita Thompson took sanctuary in a church in Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood in 2018 to avoid imminent deportation to Jamaica.

CJ Thompson, who has Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), was accepted to Columbia University’s School of General Studies on July 17, where he plans to further his dream of becoming a film director. His heroes include Ryan Coogler, who directed Black Panther, Creed and Fruitvale Station, and Jordan Peele, whose horror films have won him critical praise and commercial success.

“I like how they have something that’s a main story line on the outside — it’s like this is scary — but there’s also deeper things going on, which is a sign of good storytelling,” Thompson said.

Thompson and his family’s involvement with the U.S. immigration system provided both the crucible for his dreams to take shape and raw material for his creative projects.

In 2018, his family’s life was upended when their long-standing check-ins with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement suddenly ended with this directive: buy plane tickets and leave the country.

Parents with mixed-status families based in the U.S., such as Clive and Oneita, were low priorities for removal during the Obama Administration, but those priorities changed under President Donald Trump. All of Clive and Oneita’s children have permission to be in the United States, and their two youngest children, Christine and Timothy, were born here. To avoid choosing between leaving their kids or uprooting them and going to Jamaica, Oneita and Clive joined dozens of other families that have moved into worship spaces — one of several “sensitive locations” where U.S. immigration enforcement avoids making arrests.

Thompson stayed behind to take care of the family’s house in South Jersey and worked nights to help pay their bills. Almost every weekend, he visited his family at the First United Methodist Church of Germantown. His youngest siblings moved with their parents there, but can come and go freely, so Thompson would take them on trips to the store or out to eat.

Clive Thompson Jr. in his family’s South Jersey home in 2018. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

As his family life adjusted to new challenges, Thompson has worn many hats. A former vegan, he worked at a South Jersey meatball factory to help support his family. As part of his family’s public campaign around their immigration case, he spoke on their behalf and helped to cook for their monthly church supper fundraisers. He studied computer science, first at Cumberland County College (now Rowan College of South Jersey) and then at Drexel University.

Last fall, it all got to be too much.

“There was a lot going on. I was dealing with parents [who were] basically being homeless. I put a lot on my plate and it all started basically caving in on me,” he said.

Thompson said his grades at Drexel suffered. He began staying with his parents at the church, or with his older sister in New Jersey.

“I felt like I was always on the go,” Thompson said. Even though that period of his life has passed, he said, “I’m still homeless in a sense,” because he’s still relying on his sister or the church for shelter.

‘Never seen a good smile on his face’

Eventually, he realized that nagging feeling that he was on the wrong path wouldn’t quit, and he switched his major to film and media studies.

“I chose computer science because I felt like it was a more financially stable route, but I used to be just more into literature and reading and story plot,” he said. “When I played video games I was more into story than anything.”

Oneita Thompson attributes his new career direction to sanctuary itself, and her son’s experience trying to raise his family’s profile and communicate their story effectively to the public.

“I know it is because of us and our story being out there and knowing that it takes a film person, an interview person to do this. That’s the only way a story can be out there,” she said.

In March, Thompson lost his job at South Philly Barbacoa, a Mexican-restaurant with a social mission, due to the coronavirus. He also took a break from his studies at Drexel, and began writing a film script, set inside the church. In the project, titled “Sanctuary,” a COVID-19-like disease is raging outside, and a father and son take refuge in a church. Unlike the coronavirus, this disease has a 100% infection rate, and people who succumb turn into blind, bat-like creatures called “pteropods.”

Spoiler alert: underneath the trappings of a horror movie, “really it’s about a boy learning to live on his own, after the death of his father,” Thompson said.

This May, he applied to Columbia University’s General Studies program, a track for non-traditional students with “support and academic resources” tailored to that experience, according to the acceptance letter.

“I’ve never seen a good smile on his face until he got accepted into Columbia University,” Oneita Thompson said.

DACA recipients do not qualify for federal or state financial aid, so Thompson is hoping that he will receive a scholarship for first-generation students from the Ivy League institution. Even then, there would be room and board expenses to contend with, which he hopes to cover through crowdfunding.

Thompson said he has tried to ignore the turmoil around DACA, which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld in June after an attempt by the Trump Administration to end it in 2017. While technically ordered to resume, new applications remain stalled.

“I’ve learned that if I wait around for DACA, I’ll be waiting forever,” Thompson said of the long-promised, but not-yet-delivered, path to citizenship for the hundreds of thousands of people in the program.

His dreams won’t wait: first Columbia, then grad school in Los Angeles, “being an amazing director,” his parents finally leaving sanctuary and a family of his own.

Thompson said he’s acutely aware of how his story looks from the outside, and takes pains to highlight it in sweeping, cinematic terms: “From working in a factory and being homeless to Columbia University.”

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