The worship area at Columbus Mennonite Church is neither spacious nor towering. Nevertheless, its simplicity is beautiful, gathering worshippers into community, focusing them on the divine without otherworldly distractions. For Edith Espinal, who greets me at the front door wearing a rosary and a black t-shirt reading “I am undocumented,” it is home.
“I think that being here in sanctuary has brought me closer to God, says Espinal, who has been living at CMC for the past year in defiance of her deportation orders from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). “And I think that gives me peace and I feel calm.”
With a translator’s help, Espinal tells me her story. In 2013, Espinal and her son came to the U.S. from Mexico. They were granted advanced parole and were allowed to enter the country while Espinal began an asylum case. That case was initially denied, and Espinal began a process of appeals, taking her case before a judge (now retired) known to deny the overwhelming majority of his asylum cases.
“I think he was a little unjust,” said Espinal, who felt intimidated by the judge to present evidence that might have helped her case.
Epsinal had been complying with her ICE check-ins, but finally, she was forced to purchase a plane ticket to Mexico for October 10 2017. She instead decided to go into sanctuary—to live in a “sensitive location” away from ICE’s jurisdiction. In June 2018, she was joined by Miriam Vargas who left Honduras in 2005. Vargas now resides in the First English Lutheran Church. They are 2 of 7 people living in sanctuary in Ohio.
“I was being attacked,” Vargas tells us through a translator, describing the criminal gangs that run many facets of life in Honduras. “I had life threats and I had no choice but to leave for my own life.” She was given a six-month stay when she crossed the U.S. border and was told she would receive a letter regarding the next step of the process. A year and a half passed. Vargas had to move, never seeing the letter.
”I was being attacked, I had life threats and I had no choice but to leave for my own life.“— Edith Espinal.
Espinal and Vargas are human faces on a broken system. For much of its history, the United States had no immigration system. The growing country, needing workers, did not set restrictions or quotas. Newcomers did not need employment offers, previously settled relatives, or refugee/asylee status to qualify as immigrants.
Both Espinal and Vargas are mothers, and it is largely for their children that they have made such enormous sacrifices.
“I have two daughters. One is nine and one is five,” said Vargas. Her eyes are large and beautiful, and sometimes engulfed with emotion. “The basic need is that they need an education. They’re in school. They’re first and foremost in my life and I’m in sanctuary because of them.”
Vargas has tried to maintain a sense of routine, despite the drastic changes to her life. She still begins each day by getting her girls ready for school, striving to be as much a part of their education as possible, especially for her daughter with special needs. Espinal joins the Mennonite services and church activities, sometimes singing with the choir. She takes a daily walk with the secretary.
Both church and community have created a support system for the women. There are fundraisers to help them with their financial needs. Social media groups provide updates. A local Italian restaurant brings Espinal a weekly meal, and Meal Train sign-ups are available to provide food.
“The people of the faith groups that have taken these women in are somehow realizing that through their faith, they have a responsibility to do something, and they’ve risked housing someone. It’s not easy to house someone,” says Ruben Herrera of the Columbus Sanctuary Collective.
From virtual house arrest, Espinal and Vargas also continue to speak out to the community and public officials. They are grateful for the support they have received, but want to be at home with their families.
“The purpose of sanctuary is not just to house someone inside,” said Herrera. “It’s to get them back out. So we still have to go through the legal system to get them out.”
”The reason we’ve left our countries behind and come here to learn this new culture and place is to protect our families, because here I’ve always felt safe and my children, thanks to God, have been safe as well.“
The legal options are few. When Espinal’s son turned 21, he filed a petition for his mother. Supporters also hope that Espinal might be granted a stay of removal so that she can live at home while her legal issues are resolved.
Immigration reform is the obvious ultimate step. But until then, what? “Right now there’s deportation and so sanctuary is one of those things that we do until we can actually have a conversation about what reform means,” said Herrera.
Vargas believes that she was left without options, either to leave Honduras through a stable legal channel or to repair her situation when she came to the United States.
“Many of us have come to work, so…how can we come and be allowed to be with our families and work in a way that’s through the system?” Vargas asks. “It’s just not possible right now for many people from my country, but also from Latin America.”
Herrera became active in immigrant justice when he stopped by at a Red Cross office, after a multi-apartment fire near Georgesville Road had killed and displaced several Hispanic immigrants. He expected they would need translation and language services.
“They were asking for clergy. I realized then that people in tragedies, specifically immigrants or Latino-Hispanic people, that you go back to your faith.”
After being tragically let down by the system, Espinal and Vargas have solidified their faith in something greater. Espinal trusts God will allow her to see her daughter graduate from high school.
“We’re all human beings and we have families too,” says Espinal. “The reason we’ve left our countries behind and come here to learn this new culture and place is to protect our families because here I’ve always felt safe and my children, thanks to God, have been safe as well.”