By Ganesh Setty, CNN
(CNN) – For 843 days, Oneita and Clive Thompson took sanctuary in two Philadelphia churches to escape Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Daily life was constrained within the humble walls of the First United Methodist Church of Germantown, and later the Tabernacle United Church downtown.
They ate, bathed, and slept cloistered inside the churches, bereft of the ability to walk beyond the grounds for fear of deportation.
“At first I would not even go on the porch, I was so fearful,” Oneita, 48, told CNN.
Though there is no explicit law preventing ICE from going into “sensitive locations” like churches to deport undocumented individuals, the agency says it generally avoids such enforcement actions.
After the family’s repeated attempts to block the deportation order, the federal government dropped the order in mid-December.
On Monday, the Thompsons finally walked free.
“It’s still sinking in, it was liberating. I don’t know how to explain it,” Oneita said, likening the experience to a caged bird finally freed.
“You just want to spread your wings and fly away.”
The family had been enjoying a ‘quiet life’
Oneita and Clive, 61, had fled from Jamaica’s gang violence in 2004 with their children, after Oneita said her brother was killed and Clive was threatened. Though denied asylum, they were allowed to stay in the U.S., received work authorization, and had periodic check-ins with ICE.
They settled down and enjoyed a “quiet life” raising their seven children in Cedarville, a small town in New Jersey’s Cumberland County, Oneita said. For roughly 14 years Oneita worked as a certified nursing assistant and Clive worked with heavy machinery at the Cumberland Dairy processing facility.
That was until August 2018, when ICE under the Trump Administration told the Thompsons they would not extend their stay for removal and were to report to them within days to be removed from the country.
The family turned to the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, which found them shelter and assisted in legal proceedings.
“It was a nightmare. From one day living the American dream…within four days all of that was just taken away,” Oneita said.
She, Clive, and their two teenagers, Christine, 18, and Timothy, 14, who are both American citizens, moved in to the Methodist church, and later on, in September, to the Tabernacle United Church. While the teenagers were free to come and go, one step outside of the church grounds for Oneita and Clive could have meant a one-way ticket back to Jamaica.
“The reality of physical sanctuary is that it is incredibly hard…It becomes house arrest, you’re almost trapped,” Peter Pedemonti, co-director of National Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, told CNN.
Being holed up may have been even worse than house arrest, Oneita added, noting how they could not even view the outside world beyond the churches’ stained glass windows.
Letters pour in on their behalf
Clive and Oneita Thompson had fled from Jamaica’s gang violence in 2004 with their children.
During those 843 days ICE had repeatedly denied the couple’s requests to stay ICE’s order for removal as they applied for permanent residency, she said. Their daughter Angel went on to gain citizenship and got her I-130 form approved, the federal form that’s the first step in having alien relatives establish permanent residency in the United States.
“We have no criminal record, we work and pay our taxes, we volunteer, I spent my whole almost 14 years taking care of the elderly in this country,” Oneita said.
Come Thanksgiving time, the Thompsons filed a motion to reopen their asylum case with the Department of Justice’s Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA). After the Thompsons’ two affidavits, previous letters from Democratic Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey, Democratic New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, and Rep. Dwight Evans (D-Pennsylvania), and approximately 200 letters from church and community members, ICE decided to join the Thompsons’ motion to reopen their asylum case.
“Upon the BIA’s issuance of a decision, the Thompsons were no longer subject to a final order of removal, thereby removing any imminent concerns of possible removal,” an ICE official told CNN, adding that the agency carries out removal decisions made in federal immigration courts, which are administered by the DOJ’s Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR).
Though safe from deportation, the Thompsons have still yet to gain permanent residency.
But for now, the they are just relieved the ordeal is over. “We danced,” she said. “We just danced for freedom.”