Immigrant mother at risk of deportation seeks sanctuary in Ohio church

Edith Espinal given refuge in Columbus

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Are immigration agents willing to go into church to deport an undocumented immigrant?

Edith Espinal and her supporters at the Columbus Mennonite Church hope the answer is "no." They're motivated, in part, by the deportation of a woman from Greater Cincinnati.

Espinal was supposed to be at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement office Tuesday, where she'd likely be sent back to Mexico. Instead, she was at the church to seek sanctuary, the first person in Ohio to publicly do so.

Church pastor Joel Miller said his congregation's decision to take in Espinal was unanimous, an act of moral defiance against immigration policy they believe to be inhumane. Maribel Trujillo Diaz, separated from her family in Butler County and sent back to Mexico, played into that decision, he said.

"Maribel's case is part of a growing awareness that we, as a congregation, and I think many of us have of the reality of what's happening with deportation right now," Miller said. "The narrative that it only being the worst of the worst and criminals who are being deported is simply false, and Edith's story is a counter-narrative to that."

The church's news conference came the same day President Donald Trump's administration announced it would phase out a program protecting young, undocumented immigrants from deportation. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals began five years ago, under the Obama administration; Attorney General Jeff Sessions called it an "unconstitutional exercise of authority by the executive branch."

 

Espinal made the decision to accept sanctuary in Columbus about a week and a half ago; she moved into the church Monday. Her children, both of whom are United States citizens, can visit anytime.

Dan Clark, Ohio director of Faith in Public Life, said ICE hasn't raided a church since the 1980s. The agency avoids making arrests at "sensitive locations," though there are special circumstances.

But Stephen Yale-Loehr, who teaches immigration law at Cornell Law School, told CNN there is no special legal sanctuary for undocumented immigrants in churches.

So Espinal went public to make herself and her family safer, Clark said.

"We created a big splash today, and I don't see any ICE agents following her GPS tracker right now," Clark said.

More than a dozen Greater Cincinnati congregations also have worked to help undocumented immigrants find sanctuary in Cincinnati. The the newly-formed Cincinnati Sanctuary Congregation Coalition is made up of more than 20 area congregations of Christian, Jewish and Muslim traditions.

RELATED: Churches band together to stop deportations

The coalition includes Temple Shalom, Clifton Mosque, St. John’s Unitarian Church, Mt. Auburn Baptist Church, Quakers and several other Christian denominations. They've started pooling resources and hope to provide immigrants with furniture, appliances, food, clothing and other services.

Clifton United Methodist Church is investing more than $15,000 in construction cost alone to convert a section of the basement into an apartment large enough for a family of four or more who has a family member at risk of deportation due to his or her legal status in the country. 

David Meredith, pastor of Clifton United Methodist, previously told WCPO.com the apartment would be ready this month.

"God does not view us by our nationality or race. We are all the same in his eyes," Meredith said. "This is no different than the church housing a refugee."

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This story contains prior reporting from WCPO contributor Troy May.

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