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Bitter Anniversary: Edith Espinal Marks One Year Living In Sanctuary

Edith Espinal sitting in the sanctuary of the Columbus Mennonite Church.
Nick Evans
Edith Espinal sitting in the sanctuary of the Columbus Mennonite Church.

The Columbus Mennonite Church sits a block off High Street on a Clintonville avenue lined with craftsmen houses. For the past year, this church has been Edith Espinal’s home.

“Very long days for one year,” she says, looking down at her hands. “I don’t how much I can wait.”

Espinal was born in Mexico but moved to Columbus in 1995 with her father. She returned to her home country briefly, but came back to Columbus in 2000. Along the way, she got a job, started a family—she has three children—and applied for asylum. 

Espinal is from Michoacán, a Mexican state along the Pacific coast, and rising violence in the region helped prompt her asylum claims. But last year, immigration authorities rejected her case, so the Mennonite church offered her sanctuary instead.

On Monday, Pastor Joel Miller spoke about Espinal at a Columbus City Council meeting.

“For a bit of context, as of now there are right at 50 public sanctuary cases in the U.S., and many more that are not public,” Miller told city councilors. “Two of those cases are in Columbus, Miriam Vargas of First English Lutheran being the other. There’s potentially a third case in the works. This puts Columbus at the leading edge of a national movement.”

The sanctuary movement began in 1980s, and the bitter fight that sprung up around churches offering safe harbor to immigrants has had a lasting influence on enforcement policies. ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) maintains a policy of avoiding what it calls "sensitive locations"—places of worship, schools and hospitals. 

Although that policy gives Espinal a certain level of protection, her daughter Stephanie Gonzalez told City Council it doesn’t allow for safe passage.

“My brother was taken to emergency in June because of a strong pain in his stomach, he was also recently in a car accident and was also taken to emergency,” Gonzalez explained. “In those two important situations my mom could not be there with him, taking care of him and telling him that everything would be fine.”

Espinal says her family used to have a normal life, and she laments the disruption in her children’s routines. She explains if her daughter spends the night, she has to be up at 5 or 6 in the morning to make it across town to school. Her son Brandow plays soccer, and with practice taking up most of his afternoons and evenings, it’s hard to find time for visits.

“They don’t have the normal life they had before, but I feel so sad when they don’t come and I can do nothing,” Espinal says.

Espinal says she received visits and pledges of support from a number of politicians, but she’s frustrated they haven’t been able to make an impact on her case.

"They only, they’re only coming to visit me,” Espinal says. “They say we support you, we'll help you, we do everything we can do for you, but they don’t do nothing."

Meanwhile, many lawmakers around the country are pushing for more stringent enforcement of illegal immigration. Last year, Republican state Rep. Candice Keller of Middletown filed a measure in the Ohio General Assembly that would have cracked down on so-called sanctuary cities, which refuse or limit cooperation with federal immigration authorities. The bill failed to gain traction, but Keller and other state lawmakers were invited to the White House to discuss sanctuary policies.

In a statement at the time, Keller wrote, “The Trump Administration wants to get input from specific states dealing with irresponsible immigration policies, and is serious about partnering with local leaders to tackle the growing concerns about illegal immigration in our nation.”

Espinal’s lawyers have filed motions in court to reconsider her claims. Until the court acts, Espinal waits.

Nick Evans was a reporter at WOSU's 89.7 NPR News. He spent four years in Tallahassee, Florida covering state government before joining the team at WOSU.