Two immigrant families — both with children who are American citizens — have taken sanctuary inside a Philadelphia church, desperate to block imminent deportations that they say could lead to their being killed in their homelands.

Now sheltered within the towering stone walls of the First United Methodist Church of Germantown, both families swear they'll stay until the U.S. government agrees to let them live and work here, as they have done for years.

The families, from Honduras and Jamaica, recently had long-standing pleas for asylum turned down.

They are the second and third families to take sanctuary in Philadelphia in the last 10 months, part of a national movement to protect undocumented immigrants who are at risk of deportation. It's unclear how many people are in sanctuary nationwide, although Colorado and North Carolina each have several families living in churches.

"Whatever it takes, I will do for my children. I am father and mother to them, and I don't want them to be separated from me."
- Suyapa Reyes, mother of 4

The move into the Germantown church, the families' supporters say, reflects that the Trump administration seeks to divide children from parents not just at the southern border, but in cities and towns elsewhere.

"Whatever it takes, I will do for my children," said Suyapa Reyes, 35, who came to the United States from Honduras in 2014. "I am father and mother to them, and I don't want them to be separated from me."

She's living in the church with children: Jennifer, 13; Yamie, 7; Jeison, 2; and Junior, 10 months. The toddler and the baby are U.S. citizens and were not ordered to be deported with the rest of the family, Reyes said.

Also in sanctuary are Clive and Oneita Thompson, who lived in South Jersey after coming to America from Jamaica in 2004. They entered sanctuary with 15-year-old daughter Christine and 12-year-old son Timothy. Both children are American citizens.

"I know it's going to be difficult for me," Christine said. "But everything is not about me. I know everything is going to work out."

Both families have notified U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement (ICE) that they have taken sanctuary in the church. They are not hiding, they said, but are challenging a federal immigration system that they regard as unfair.

"It gives them a safe place to pursue their options," said the Rev. Robert Coombe, senior pastor, "but it also provides time where we as a society can see the injustice of separating children from parents."

Suyapa Reyes carries son Jeison, 2, to their room in the First United Methodist Church of Germantown.
TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Suyapa Reyes carries son Jeison, 2, to their room in the First United Methodist Church of Germantown.

About a hundred supporters gathered on the church steps in the baking heat Wednesday morning to formally welcome the families with speeches, songs, and prayers.  Guitarist Lauren Moyer played "In the Eye of the Storm," and the crowd sang along, raising placards reading "No human is illegal and "Families belong together."

Two people held a line hung with baby clothes, symbolizing the children who have been separated from their families.

"They are defending the most precious treasure they have, their families," said Blanca Pacheco, co-director of New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, which provides support services to immigrants.

The crowd moved into the church, where Coombe gave a Bible reading from Luke and Isaiah, explaining how prophets take people beyond established borders, offering hospitality and healing to those who are deemed "the other."

First United Methodist declared itself a sanctuary church going back to the 1980s, when the federal government prosecuted 18 priests, nuns, and lay people it accused of aiding undocumented migrants escaping civil wars in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala.

In 1984, the church provided sanctuary to a Guatemalan couple fleeing persecution, and organized its congregation to challenge government policy.

The Reyes and Thompson families are being supported by New Sanctuary Movement.

In an interview at the church on Tuesday, Pacheco and co-director Peter Pedemonti said that when the families came seeking help and sanctuary, the only question for the organization was how to make it work.

Carmela Apolonio Hernandez and her four children have lived nearly 10 months in the Church of the Advocate in North Philadelphia to avoid having to return to Mexico, where gangsters killed her brother and two nephews.

So far, the family has not been touched by federal authorities, though the children travel to school each day.

ICE guidelines dissuade agents from taking action at "sensitive locations," such as churches, schools, and hospitals. But the agency asserts the right to detain undocumented immigrants anywhere at any time, and arrests have occurred near churches and schools.

People in sanctuary depend on a concept that goes back to the Bible and its "six cities of refuge." The tenet of sanctuary also ran through the societies of ancient Greece and Rome, and became widely known through Victor Hugo's 1831 novel, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.

Groups such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) in Washington say sanctuary thwarts federal law and blocks police from carrying out their duties. A church setting doesn't exempt anyone from the law, FAIR officials say, and religious leaders who harbor undocumented immigrants could face charges.

The time in sanctuary can easily stretch to a year or more.

Reyes said she came to this country to escape the violence and drug trafficking that has enveloped Honduras — and the certainty that her growing children would face the choice of joining a gang or being killed for refusing.

Honduras is one of the three "Northern Triangle" nations, along with El Salvador and Guatemala, where unending violence has driven a stream of asylum seekers to the U.S. Asylum is a specific immigration status that allows people to stay in the country.  Migrants can be granted safe haven if they have a reasonable fear of being persecuted in their homeland.

Reyes' request was turned down in 2017, but she was not immediately ordered to leave, she said. In August, ICE directed her to be out of the country by Sept. 14.

"Whatever it takes, I will do for my children," said Reyes, who worked in a restaurant before taking sanctuary. "Why separate the families?"

The Thompsons have lived in the U.S. even longer.

Oneita, 45, came seeking asylum after a gang burned the family farm and murdered her brother. Her husband, Clive, 59, came later. Christine was born in the U.S. during an earlier family visit.

Their asylum plea was denied in 2009, and the family appealed. That filing was denied last month, and the family was ordered quickly deported.

Until taking sanctuary, Oneita worked as a nursing assistant at Friends Village, a continuing care retirement community in Woodstown, N.J. Her husband worked as a machine operator at Cumberland Dairy in Bridgeton, N.J.

The Thompsons say they built a life in this country. They own a house and a car, pay taxes and work hard. Their children know nothing of Jamaica. And the family would be in danger if forced back, they said.

"It's an injustice to treat families like this," Clive Thompson said. "We deserve a chance, after so many years of living here. … I'm asking ICE to stay the deportation. I'm asking the administration to give us a chance to stay with our families."

How long will his family be willing to stay in sanctuary?

"As long as it takes," Oneita said. "As long as it takes."