PHILADELPHIA – An immigrant couple who fled gang violence in Jamaica emerged from a Philadelphia church basement Monday after spending 843 days hiding there when they lost their asylum case.
Oneita and Clive Thompson, who have seven children, three of whom are American citizens, came to the country in 2004 after Oneita’s brother was killed by gang members and Clive was threatened by them, CNN reported.
Although their asylum was denied at the time, they were granted a stay and work authorization in the country with periodic check-ins from immigration officials. Oneita, 48, worked as a certified nursing assistant. Clive, 61, operated heavy machinery at the Cumberland Dairy processing plant.
Then in 2018, their stay was revoked. They were ordered to be deported.
“It was a nightmare,” Oneita said. “From one day living the American dream…within four days all of that was just taken away.”
They looked to Tabernacle United Church for help. The church provided shelter and legal help.
Although there is no law preventing immigration officials from enforcement activity on sensitive areas like houses of worship, they generally try to avoid it, CNN reported.
The couple lived in the basement with their children Christine, 18, and Timothy, 14, who are both American citizens. Their children could come and go, while their parents stayed tucked behind the stone walls and stained glass.
“At first I would not even go on the porch, I was so fearful,” Oneita told CNN.
Their request was repeatedly denied, until early December. The couple recently received a letter from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials that now supports their stay in the country, KYW-TV reported.
“When we got the letter from ICE, I was just looking at it in shock,” Clive Thompson said in a statement. “It’s a big breakthrough – after working so long, this is a miracle. I feel like all the stress is drifting away, and everything is lighting up with joy.”