Oneita and Clive Thompson on Monday celebrated their freedom after spending more than two years – 843 days – living in sanctuary in Philadelphia churches to avoid deportation.
The Jamaican couple said they received notice from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement last week that the agency will support their case to stay in the country, The Philadelphia Inquirer first reported. Over the course of two years, the Thompsons gained national attention as one of many undocumented families that sought refuge in churches after President Donald Trump came into office.
“You just feel victorious,” Oneita told USA TODAY on Monday. “Like a burden has just fallen off the shoulders.”
Oneita said she and her husband came to the U.S. in 2004 to flee gang violence. Federal officials denied them asylum but they were given permission to work. In 2018, the Thompsons, who have five children, received a notice to leave the country.
The New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, a faith-based immigrant advocacy group, supported the Thompsons and helped them find refuge.
“Today was a really joyful moment,” New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia co-director Peter Pedemonti told USA TODAY. “It’s kind of an amazing time for this to happen right before Christmas.”
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Oneita said she and her husband spent a lot of time praying and fasting. Volunteers helped write letters to federal and state officials seeking support. Before the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S., the Thompsons hosted fundraisers where Oneita would cook traditional Jamaican dishes – curry and jerk chicken, oxtails, rice and peas – to raise money to pay legal fees and the mortgage for the house they left behind in New Jersey.
“I’m just happy to know that I’m free,” Oneita said, adding that she and her husband are excited to get back to their own home.
“It’s really the family who have taken the lead and taken a risk here and I think the church and organization come in solidarity with them,” Pedemonti said.
The Thompsons stayed at the First United Methodist Church of Germantown before moving to Tabernacle United Church.
Reverend Katie Aikins told USA TODAY that Tabernacle United Church has been part of the sanctuary movement since the 1980s. Most churches host one family at a time, Aikins said.
The Thompsons “shine a light on how difficult it is and has been with this administration for immigrants,” she said.
“Today really was to celebrate and give thanks for such an amazing victory but also to shine a light on [how hard it is] for a lot of families. The threat of being deported and being separated from your family.”