Community feature: Inside Edith Espinal's life in sanctuary

Erica Thompson
Edith Espinal in her room above the sanctuary at Columbus Mennonite Church on Oct. 4.

Saturdays just aren't the same for Edith Espinal. In the past, she'd start the day by having breakfast with her family. Then they might spend time at the mall, or attend one of her son Brandow's soccer games.

But for the past two weekends, Espinal has not ventured beyond the grounds of her current residence. The bustling environment of retail stores and soccer fields has given way to a palpable silence indoors, and the sterile white countertops in the large kitchen show no obvious signs of frequent use by a family.

That's because Espinal has been living primarily alone in sanctuary from deportation at Columbus Mennonite Church since Oct. 2.

“I have a room, I have enough space [and] I can walk around,” 40-year-old Espinal said in Spanish during an interview translated by community immigrant justice organizer Ruben Herrera on a recent Saturday at the church. “The only big difference is I'm not at home.”

Home was once Michoacan, Mexico, for Espinal, who grew up with her father and followed him to the U.S. about 20 years ago. Since then, she has built a family of her own — including her husband and three kids, Isidro, 21, Stephanie, 16, and Brandow, 19 — in Columbus.

However, that family has been in jeopardy since Espinal was ordered deported on Sept. 25 and forced to purchase a ticket for a flight back to Mexico on Oct. 10. She purposely missed the flight and decided to remain in sanctuary. She is currently pursuing a legal stay of removal through her son, Isidro, who, at the time of theAlive interview, was planning to file paperwork with United States Citizenship and Immigration Services to petition for his mother to receive legal residence.

In the meantime, Columbus Mennonite Church in Clintonville has tried to make Espinal's temporary home as welcoming as possible, setting up a bedroom and bathroom for her behind the nursery upstairs. A poster on her door features an uplifting message in green marker, which translates to: “Open doors, open hands, open hearts. Here, there is a place for you.” Another sign, “Bienvenidos (Welcome) Edith,” decorated with colorful flowers and countless signatures, sits inside her modest room, furnished like a dorm apartment.

She has a small bed, television, dresser, cabinets, sink, microwave and mini-fridge. There are small, personal touches — a rosary on the night stand, and a book, “Descubra su Verdadera Personalidad,” or “Positive Personality Profiles,” by Dr. Robert A. Rohm. When Espinal isn't talking to her family on the phone or watching the news or telenovelas, she spends a lot of time reading uplifting content to stay positive. “That has helped me,” she said.

There is also a large teddy bear that was given to Edith on Valentine's Day by Brandow, whose future in the country has been an additional source of worry. Unlike his siblings, Brandow is undocumented and was subjected to frequent check-ins with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). However, at Brandow's meeting with the agency on Oct. 16, he learned he wouldn't have to check in again for another six months. His immigration court hearing regarding his status will take place in 2020.

“So many times I've seen [my mom] cry, now I can see her smile, for now,” Brandowtold NBC4.

Espinal's family has access to the church, and her husband and daughter have been staying with her at night. Family members also join her for dinner when they can; they prepare meals in the church kitchen. Using an online service, community members sign up to donate food, which is dropped off at another church to be delivered later.

“It's worked really well,” said Herrera, who spends much of his time at the church with Espinal. “But every once in a while, somebody will … bring a pastry or pizza [here]. … I'll meet them and talk to them outside and see who they are.”

Given her deportation order, Espinal has to be cautious of visitors, though ICE officials said they are unlikely to enter churches, considered “sensitive locations,” to carry out enforcement actions.

With Herrera's help, Espinal sent formal requests to Gov. John Kasich, Mayor Andrew J. Ginther, Sen. Sherrod Brown and Sen. Rob Portman to visit her. She wants to know “how they can intercede on my case and stop my deportation,” but their presence at the church is her primary ask.

“The main thing is they come and visit and see my face and hear my story,” she said.

Mayor Ginther has not yet received a request from Espinal, but would be "open to meeting with her," Robin Davis, a spokesperson for the mayor, said in a statement toAlive, which also read, "This is another tragic example that shows how we need constructive immigration reform on a national level.”

“Cases like this are heartbreaking,” Emily Benavides, a spokesperson for Sen. Portman, said in a statement toAlive. “We are in touch with the relevant federal agencies to ensure all relevant facts of the case are heard.”

"[Sen. Brown] and his office always do everything possible to assist any Ohioan who reaches out to our office for help with a federal agency," Rachel Petri, a spokesperson for the senator, said in a statement toAlive. "[He] has said tearing apart families who are working and paying taxes is not the way to fix our broken immigration system."

Gov. Kasich did not immediately respond to request for comment.

“I'm here because of my family,” Espinal said. “I guess I would ask, ‘What would you do if you were forced to be separated from your family?' And I think that most people would do what they could to be with their children.”

“[Edith]'s a leader,” Herrera said. “The fight is about [her] and the Espinal family, but it's also about justice for people in Columbus and this ‘#OpportunityCity.' … That's all we're asking is for opportunity for us, for everybody.”