| October 03 2019,

5:13 pm

Oneita Thompson and her family have lived in a Philadelphia church for almost 10 months. The Thompson family went into sanctuary at the First United Methodist Church of Germantown after Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) informed the parents they needed to buy one-way tickets to Jamaica.

The family left Jamaica and applied for asylum in 2004 because of threats by local gangs, coupled with the murder of Oneita’s brother. While waiting for their case to process, they established new lives in New Jersey. Oneita worked as a nurse assistant, while her husband worked as a machine operator. Together they bought a home.

Like many U.S. families, the Thompson household is a mixed status family. Their two youngest children, who live in sanctuary with their parents, are U.S. citizens. Two other children are DACA recipients. One child is a permanent resident. The two oldest are permanent residents and married to U.S. citizens. Only the two head of households face deportation.

In 2012 they lost their asylum case and appealed all the way to the Third Circuit Court, where their case was dismissed. Their attorney filed for a stay of removal and the family continued living and working in the United States on the condition they check-in yearly with ICE.

Enter the Trump administration, whose hardline stance on immigration suddenly put the family in danger of separation, after years of cooperating with immigration enforcement. With little to no other options to continue fighting their case inside the U.S., they went into sanctuary with the help of the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia and informed ICE of their location.

“I am not a threat to society. I have lived [in the U.S.] for 15 years working, taking care of my family and volunteering,” Oneita told Blavity.

The sanctuary movement has been growing around the country. It can take different forms, but many people are probably more familiar with sanctuary churches. Equipped congregations can offer protection to immigrants facing detention and deportation by offering physical shelter.

Immigrants who go into sanctuary cannot leave church property for fear of deportation, so the experience is like house arrest. Some immigrants use this as a last resort since ICE does not enter “sensitive locations” such as schools, hospitals, and places of worship.

Activists have also encouraged local lawmakers to declare their municipalities’ sanctuary cities. In these locations, institutions and local law enforcement have limited cooperation with immigration enforcement agencies. College students are also demanding administrators declare their schools sanctuary campuses, where immigration enforcement is not allowed on campus without legal documentation.

As the movement intensifies, so have the Trump administration’s efforts to thwart it. The president has vowed to rescind federal funding from sanctuary cities, however, the courts ruled it unconstitutional. More recently, Trump wanted to relocate detained immigrants to sanctuary cities as retribution for the lack of Democratic support of his immigration policies. Supporters of his policies at the state level have also moved to authorize local law enforcement to serve as immigration enforcement.

So, where are black faith leaders, especially black churches, in this movement?

For historically black churches, the fugitive experience is not unfamiliar. In fact, the practice of black churches offering refuge and safety to enslaved Africans and African Americans seeking freedom can be considered one of the earliest practices of sanctuary in the United States.

These institutions have played a critical role in the fight for human and civil rights, with much of the grassroots organizing — especially within the Civil Rights movement — rooted in the work of black church women. One outcome of the fight against racial discrimination was the end of overt racial discrimination in U.S. immigration policy, such as the emphasis of family reunification and the elimination of the National Origins quota.

Fortunately, there are some churches that have been actively involved in the Immigrant Rights movement.

In Raleigh, North Carolina, St. John’s Baptist Church has offered sanctuary to Pastor Jose Chicas — an immigrant from El Salvador — for almost two years.  

In Los Angeles, Holman United Methodist Church has hosted community events including “Know Your Rights” and legal clinics in collaboration with organizations such as Black Alliance for Just Immigration, ICE out of LA, and Black Women for Wellness among others. First AME has also hosted legal clinics on a wide range of issues, including immigration, for community members.

The idea of sanctuary is not only beneficial to immigrants but entire communities left vulnerable to state violence and neglect. Organizations like the American Friends Service Committee, Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100), Mijente, and the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, have pushed for expanded sanctuary.

This campaign calls for an end to policing and immigration enforcement that targets black and brown communities as well as a redistribution of resources to meet community needs. Expanded sanctuary contends with the safety and survival of all members of black and brown communities.

The campaign's call for community participation offers more ways for institutions and community members to get involved in the sanctuary movement.

The Thompson family is counted among the 50 known people currently in sanctuary across the United States, according to the Church World Services. Oneita has been a strong advocate for her family by reaching out to organizations and churches to elevate their case, as well as organizing monthly fundraisers by cooking meals to sell, in addition to her parental responsibilities.

The experience of the Thompson family demonstrates clearly the rising threat to immigrant families and persistent criminalization of black communities requires active support from community faith leaders, and members from across the diaspora, in order to defend the community's collective political future.