Miriam Vargas moved into First English Lutheran Church in an effort to stay with her children.

Miriam Vargas, a 41-year-old immigrant from Honduras, has become the second person in Columbus to publicly seek refuge from deportation in a church. Vargas, the mother of two American-born daughters, was taken into sanctuary June 26 by First English Lutheran Church on East Main Street.

Vargas had, according to an article in The Columbus Dispatch, been denied aslyee status and was in the appeals process when she received a deportation order last week from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. Instead of returning to Honduras, Vargas sought sanctuary to remain with her two daughters, ages 5 and 9, both of whom are U.S. citizens.

The action comes as national attention is focused on the separation of families at the U.S.-Mexico border, with rallies taking place across the country, including one held June 30 at the Ohio Statehouse.

Vargas is the fifth person in Ohio to publicly seek refuge from deportation in a church, according to the Columbus Sanctuary Collective, a group organized to support immigrants and refugees. Nationally, according to the collective, she is the 45th person to publicly take sanctuary in a church. ICE officials have so far honored a 2011 agency memorandum instructing its agents not to take enforcement actions in places of worship. Hospitals, schools and rallies and demonstrations also are considered “sensitive spaces” where enforcement actions are discouraged.

Standing on the church steps during a July 2 press conference, Vargas—speaking through a translator—addressed her reasons for wanting to stay in the U.S. “I came here because in my country, Honduras, there is no opportunity, there is no work. But also, more than that, because of the danger of the gang there. I know that upon returning, that we would be targeted immediately and so we are fearful of our lives to return.”

Vargas has been living in the U.S. without permission for 13 years. Her daughters and their father are staying with Vargas in the Near East Side church, which is providing them with a large, air-conditioned room with a private bath and shower, according to Ruben Castilla Herrera, an advocate for immigrants who is working with the Columbus Sanctuary Collective..

“People have been asking, ‘How did this congregation decide to do this so quickly?’ ” said the Rev. Sally Padgett, pastor of First English Lutheran. “For this congregation, it was an easy decision. The question was really, how can we not?

“This is a sanctuary space now, and I’m very proud of that. We believe that all are welcome here and we live that out.”

According to Castilla Herrera, Vargas decided to seek sanctuary after talking with Edith Espinal, a Mexican immigrant who took refuge from deportation nine months ago in Clintonville’s Columbus Mennonite Church (see our profile of Espinal from the April issue of Columbus Monthly). Espinal, whose children are American citizens, is still living in the church.


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