Edith Espinal has spent months living inside a Clintonville church, seeking sanctuary from ICE and finding family in a congregation that supports her.
Hash marks on an index card. That's how Edith Espinal keeps track of her weekday trips up and down the stairs at Columbus Mennonite Church. Forty-two steps down the front stairs to the basement, a brisk walk past the Sunday school classrooms, 42 steps up the back stairs, along another hallway, and down again. She's usually joined by church administrator Gwen Reiser, who changes into sneakers at lunchtime to accompany Edith. Some days other parishioners come along, too. Sometimes Edith makes 10 circuits, sometimes 15, lately 20. Each time around, she stops at the front landing, just beneath a small stained-glass window, and makes a mark on an index card.
It's important to keep track. When you're climbing stairs, it's easy to lose count. Just as it's easy to lose count of the days when you're stuck inside a building not your home, day in and day out for six months, with no opportunity to step outside the doors to visit a restaurant, shop for groceries or take a walk around the block.
This is Edith Espinal's life today. It's the life of her choosing when the only alternative is deportation to Mexico. Born 40 years ago in the Mexican state of Michoacán, she was brought illegally to the U.S. by her father in 1995. She was 17, and has lived in Columbus for much of her adult life. She has three children, ages 21, 19 and 16. The oldest and the youngest are American citizens; her middle child was born during a period when Edith had returned to Mexico in the late '90s. Her husband, Manuel Gonzalez Hernandez, undocumented like Edith but in possession of a work permit because he has a pending petition for asylum, works at a Columbus junkyard. Edith used to work at a pet food packaging plant. She, too, has petitioned for asylum because of the extremely violent environment that exists in her home state—the State Department recently cautioned U.S. citizens not to travel to Michoacán, where the homicide rate is 10 times that in the U.S.—but her petition was denied. Two appeals also failed. Last September, Edith was ordered to leave the country. Instead, she moved into this Clintonville church, becoming the first undocumented immigrant to seek sanctuary in Columbus.
Inside the church, Edith has good reason to think that Immigration and Customs Enforcement won't arrest her. Immigration officials know she's there; she's wearing a GPS ankle monitor. Edith's ICE officer declined to comment on her case, citing agency rules, and ICE's northeast regional communications director Khaalid Walls did not return phone messages. But ICE is honoring a 2011 agency memorandum that instructs its agents not to take enforcement actions in churches, hospitals and schools or at rallies and demonstrations.
Edith is one of three undocumented immigrants, all of them mothers, who are being publicly protected from deportation by Ohio churches. But there are others, says Dan Clark, a minister at St. John's United Church of Christ and the Ohio director of the national organization Faith in Public Life, living in Ohio churches for sanctuary that aren't publicized. Nationwide, 37 people publicly took sanctuary in churches in 2017.
Illegal immigration is a polarizing issue. Frustration over undocumented immigrants spilling into the U.S. from Mexico in the first decade of this century led to stepped-up enforcement, which under former President Obama targeted those with criminal histories. President Trump campaigned even more aggressively, with promises to build a wall along the Mexican border and end DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals); during his first year in office, ICE started arresting and deporting not only criminals but anyone living illegally in the U.S.
The recent actions have ignited an equal and opposite reaction. Cities declared themselves sanctuaries, choosing not to assist ICE in its efforts. Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf went even further, warning her undocumented constituents of an impending ICE roundup in March. Meanwhile, a growing number of churches are stepping into the fray.
To date, the actions of Columbus Mennonite have met little resistance. Mayor Andy Ginther has stopped just short of declaring Columbus a sanctuary city. When asked for comment, Ginther emailed a statement: “Edith Espinal is a mother who is concerned for the health and well-being of her children … Separation of families is not the answer to immigration. We need comprehensive, common-sense immigration reform on a national level that keeps families together.”
In March, the federal government fought back against efforts to protect undocumented immigrants, filing suit against the state of California to crack down on sanctuary cities. But resistance to sanctuary churches, at least here in Ohio, seems to be more muted—if it exists at all. Republican Congressman Steve Stivers responded to a request for an interview with an emailed statement not terribly different from Ginther's. “Historically, churches have served as safe harbors for people who need help in America and around the world,” he wrote. “I respect the tradition of churches to serve this role.”
Meanwhile, Edith remains inside the church. She sees her family every day. Most nights, her daughter Stephanie, 16, and husband, Manuel, stay with her in the church, where she has a small room off the nursery. Isidro, her first child, is a truck driver and is usually on the road. Brandow, 19, stays at home in their West Side apartment, but visits often. The family watches movies together on TV and cooks meals in the church kitchen. “My kids make me more strong,” Edith says. “The most important thing for me is my family.”
Back and Forth
Edith's first years in this country were tumultuous. She stayed with relatives, and at one point her birth mother—also undocumented and living in California—intervened to remove Edith from a bad living situation. Her son Isidro Espinal was born in Chicago in 1996, and he and Edith moved to Columbus shortly after that, but returned to Mexico in 1997. There, Edith married Manuel and with him had a son, Brandow Gonzalez. In 1999, seeking work, Manuel crossed into the U.S. illegally and made his way to Columbus. Edith and the boys followed in 2000. Stephanie, their youngest, was born here a few years later. The family remained in Columbus until 2009, when Manuel was deported. Edith and the children returned with him to Mexico, in a move that is viewed by authorities as voluntary deportation.
In 2013, the family returned to the U.S., this time by applying for asylum. Edith and Brandow came first, crossing the border openly with a protest group dubbed the “Dream 30.” Most were ineligible for DACA because they, like Brandow, were on the wrong side of the border when the bill was passed. They walked across a bridge to Laredo, Texas, and turned themselves in at the Customs and Border Protection station, where they were admitted to the U.S. under a “parole” status that would allow them to stay while they pursued asylum claims.
Manuel and Stephanie followed a few months later as part of a larger group, the Dream 120. Manuel was detained, and Stephanie, then 12 and a U.S. citizen, was taken into protective custody. Edith was not notified and for days, she didn't know where her daughter was. Eventually they were reunited, and Manuel was released with permission to stay and pursue an asylum claim.
While Brandow's and Manuel's asylum claims are still working their way through the courts—Manuel has a court date in 2019 and Brandow in 2020—Edith's was denied more quickly. She appealed twice, and the 2017 denial of her appeal by the Board of Immigration Appeals in Cleveland resulted in a deportation order. Edith got the news at a routine check-in with ICE at LeVeque Tower last August. She was given a GPS tracker and told to leave the country within two weeks. Panicked, she texted Stephanie in the waiting room and asked her to call Ruben Castilla Herrera, an immigration activist and friend. That night, the tearful family met with Herrera and they began to discuss the possibility of Edith's entry into sanctuary.
Herrera had been working, along with Clark and others, to develop a network of churches that would be prepared to offer sanctuary to immigrants facing deportation. Shortly after meeting with Edith's family, Herrera ran into Joel Miller, pastor of Columbus Mennonite Church, and told him of Edith's plight. Of the 20 or so churches and faith communities Herrera had been working with, Columbus Mennonite was closest to being ready to offer sanctuary.
Ready to Help
Columbus Mennonite Church was founded in the 1950s by a group of Ohio State students. Mennonites, who share a history with but are no longer connected to the Amish, are known for their pacifism. Columbus Mennonite's activist bent was established early on, when the congregation got involved in service and advocacy on behalf of American Addition, an African-American neighborhood in Columbus that did not receive city services until 1969. In the 1980s, the parish participated in the first wave of the church sanctuary movement, helping to resettle a Salvadoran refugee in the community. Miller—who, with an ear cuff, shaved head and ring tattoo, belies the traditional image of Mennonites—had already been to a sanctuary training session. His church had a private room with a bathroom (although no shower yet) that could be made available. He presented Edith's story to members of the church leadership. They met with Edith and her family a few days later, and soon after that, the congregation voted to offer her sanctuary.
To ensure the congregation understood the ramifications of its decision, Joe Mas, an attorney and a member of the congregation, read aloud the federal code that said harboring a criminal (Edith, who does not have a criminal record, would be violating federal law by defying her deportation order) was punishable by up to five years in prison.
“We were kind of aware of the worst-case scenario,” says Austin McCabe Juhnke, a parishioner and OSU graduate student who took the lead in getting things ready for Edith and, later, organized volunteers to support her. “People were more compelled to take a moral stand, and were willing to take the risk, understanding also that this was a community taking this on. … That sense that we're in this together was pretty strong.”
On Sept. 3, Edith walked into the church, where a bed was waiting. That was a Tuesday. Just two days later, however, she left again, escorted by her lawyers. She had learned that she could remain free at least a little longer if she applied for a stay of deportation.
So began a tense month in which Edith and her attorneys, Inna Simakovsky and Liliana Vasquez, were accompanied to weekly ICE check-ins by a crowd of activists and church members. But by the end of September, Edith's stay of removal had been denied. To avoid detention, she was required to purchase a plane ticket to Mexico with a departure date of October 2.
Edith wasn't sure what to do. Her attorneys felt that her best chance of achieving legal status in the U.S. was to cooperate with ICE and return to Mexico while she awaited the outcome of her son's application to sponsor her. If she defied the government and went into sanctuary, they argued, she would never win her case because she had not complied with ICE's rules. “She's going to be in sanctuary forever,” Simakovsky worries.
But obeying ICE would mean leaving her family—or at least her two American children—possibly for good. “I didn't live with my mother most of my youth, and that was difficult,” says Edith, through a translator. (In the course of several interviews, Edith switches back and forth between Spanish and English, sometimes depending on Herrera or Stephanie for translation, while struggling to speak English other times.) “I want to make sure that my children have that opportunity that I didn't have. They are the most important things that I have in my life.”
On the day she was scheduled to board a plane, she skipped her ICE check-in and went to Columbus Mennonite, where she was greeted by church members singing in Spanish. During the month that Edith had been living at home, they had been preparing for the possibility that she would return to sanctuary. An online fundraising campaign had quickly raised money to cover the cost of installing a shower and security cameras. Her room had been outfitted with a mini-fridge and a microwave. They had her new home ready for her.
Edith's oldest son, Isidro, turned 21 last fall and petitioned for his mother to become a citizen through a family reunification program. But such petitions can take years to be approved—and President Trump, who refers to the policy as “chain migration,” has proposed limiting the program to spouses and minor children.
Edith has a new attorney, Lizbeth Mateo of Los Angeles, who is herself an undocumented Mexican immigrant and working pro bono. They have applied to have Edith's sanctuary case reopened on the argument that Edith wasn't allowed sufficient time or opportunity in her hearing to fully present her case. The Bureau of Immigration Appeals judge who heard Edith's case, D. William Evans, denied asylum to applicants in 91.1 percent of cases between 2012 and 2017, according to Syracuse University's Transactional Records Clearinghouse Immigration Project. Mateo hopes to find a more sympathetic ear if Edith is granted another chance.
It's a long shot; immigration attorney Mark Nesbit, who did not handle Edith's case but has represented immigrants in hundreds of other deportation cases, says Mexican nationals have a tough time meeting the court's standards for asylum, which require an applicant to show she is a member of a group that is being specifically targeted. Claims of more generally dangerous conditions, such as warfare or high crime, he says, are less likely to be successful.
Edith's history of returning to Mexico may also present a hurdle for her in court. “When you have multiple entries back and forth, out of the country and in,” says Nesbit, “your chances of getting a green card are really slim.”
“I fear I might get a call”
It's a Sunday night, and Edith's family has gathered for dinner in the church's fellowship hall, along with Herrera and Miller's wife Abbie. The meal is cross-cultural: Herrera has brought pizzas, while Manuel arrives with a bag of tomatoes and peppers for Edith's chilaquiles, a traditional Mexican dish. Edith cooks in the church kitchen three or four times a week.
On this night, Stephanie is resting upstairs with a headache. Later, she confides she's having trouble focusing in school, where she studies cosmetology, because she worries about her mother. “Each time that I leave in the morning, I fear that I might get a certain call or message saying ICE came for Mom.” She sees a therapist at Children's Hospital to help with the stress.
“My therapist is the gym,” says Brandow, grating the cheese for the chilaquiles. At 19, he has the muscles of a bodybuilder. The 2017 graduate of Grove City's Central Crossing High School is not in danger of immediate deportation; he has a date to argue his asylum case in court in 2020. But he worries about his mother, and he does not yet have a work permit. “Sometimes when I'm at home,” he says, “I feel like she's not here. I feel lonely. But when I'm here it feels normal. Sometimes I forget we're in a church.”
The Columbus Mennonites have provided a community for Edith. One woman comes to cut and color her hair; another gives her occasional massages. She's had yoga, crochet, piano and guitar lessons. People come to visit and help her practice her English. She also has integrated herself into the life of the church, attending Saturday night socials and singing in the Christmas and Easter choirs.
There has been little public blowback for the church. Miller says the office received a couple of angry phone messages, and there was a vaguely threatening Facebook post. But there have been no protestors or sidewalk confrontations, and in fact, the church has received an outpouring of support. The congregation of First Unitarian Universalist Church provided meals for Edith and her family, and the Dominican Sisters of Peace and other churches have contributed financially. Outside groups have used the church building to hold fundraisers in support of Edith and the sanctuary movement.
Having Edith and her family living among them, says Miller, is “transforming us as a community.” Every Sunday, his service begins with a sanctuary prayer, in both English and Spanish. “We've had whole months of worship focused on the issue of sanctuary,” he says. “This chance to accompany Edith has been a real gift.”
Katie Graber, who has taught world music at Ohio State and Otterbein, is teaching Edith to play the piano, and sometimes walks the stairs with her. “She's an amazing woman,” Graber says. “Our taking Edith into sanctuary is, of course, for the benefit of Edith but it's also a broader statement against the laws and the unfair treatment of ICE to all immigrants.”
When Edith talks about her new friends in the church, she speaks in English. “The community makes me more strong,” she says. “If I don't have the community, I think maybe I can't do this by myself. But everybody here in the church tries to make my days easy, tries to make my days move faster. I'm so happy to stay here in the church.”
Making the Impossible Possible
Edith's position in sanctuary has provided her a platform to speak out against immigration laws and enforcement policies, and she's grown into the role. In January, more than 120 people gathered at the church to hear her story, as well as the stories of undocumented immigrants in sanctuary in North Carolina, Texas and Pennsylvania, who were conferenced in by live video. Thousands more watched on Facebook Live, according to Herrera.
She writes letters to policymakers and has been visited at the church by politicians including Columbus City Councilmember Elizabeth Brown, gubernatorial candidate Dennis Kucinich and Mayor Ginther.
Edith doesn't know when her stay at Columbus Mennonite will end—if ever. The Mennonites are committed to go the distance, says Miller. Faith in Public Life's Dan Clark says the sanctuary movement is growing and could ultimately involve hundreds or even thousands of churches harboring undocumented immigrants to keep families together.
Seated in the lobby of the church with Herrera as interpreter, Edith says, “I think every mother and every father would do whatever, even the impossible, to provide for their children. I would even think that those who work for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE, that they too would do whatever they could for their children. That's something that we have in common. And that's what I am putting out there to them.”
Herrera reads a Bible quote he discovered recently. It's from the Prophet Isaiah.Behold, I will do a new thing; now it shall spring forth; shall ye not know it? I will even make a way in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert.
“It's the story of life,” he says. “Escaping from the old, and finding the new. Rivers in the desert.”
“We are making the impossible possible,” Edith responds. “We have to take a risk to get where we want to be.”