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In a Fusion of Faith and Political Struggle, Sanctuary Becomes a Movement

Lauren Sega Lauren Sega In a Fusion of Faith and Political Struggle, Sanctuary Becomes a MovementPhoto by the Columbus Sanctuary Collective.
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As the discourse around immigration reform changes daily, Edith Espinal’s own pending citizenship continues to hang in the balance.

The undocumented mother of three has been confined to her sanctuary at Columbus Mennonite Church (CMC) in Clintonville since October 2017, when a judge denied her asylum case and issued an order for her deportation. Espinal has spent the last eight months working on reopening that asylum case, which recently met a new obstacle. On June 11, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions limited asylum protections to exclude victims of domestic abuse and gang violence. While Espinal hasn’t disclosed the specifics of her asylum case, she said she’s now focusing entirely on getting state representative Joyce Beatty to introduce a private bill granting her citizenship.

She’s also been brewing a plan for larger, widespread action in the form of a Columbus Sanctuary Collective — a movement that uses sanctuary as an act of constant resistance, led by the undocumented immigrants whose freedom and security are most at stake.

“It’s something new, and we learn as we go every day — learning more about how to best do this,” Espinal said. “The hopeful thing I feel good about is that many people from different churches have stepped closer to seeing the importance of sanctuary.”

Currently, CMC is the only local spiritual group providing room and board for an undocumented person. But many congregations have partnered in a supportive capacity, and a few are on the verge of transition, including First Unitarian Universalist Church in Clintonville.

Those Ohio congregations who’ve taken the plunge and are now housing an undocumented immigrant are scattered around the northern part of the state, but they’re still tuned into the work coming out of the Columbus Sanctuary Collective. It’s a loose organization as of now, but the ultimate goal is to grow that collective to connect each sanctuary in Ohio, the region, and finally the nation.

Leaders from congregations across Ohio visited Columbus in May for a “sanctuary as resistance” event at CMC. Of them, several are already sanctuaries, including St. Andrews Episcopal Church in Mentor, where Laura Martinez and her two children Jose and Joshua have sought sanctuary since October 2017.

Martinez and her husband crossed the border from Mexico with their child Jose 15 years ago, and she’s since been a member of the Painesville community, where she had her second child Joshua. When her marriage ended, Martinez “worked to keep things afloat for her kids, lived under the radar, the boys went to school, and they lived their lives,” said St. Andrews Rector Lisa O’Rear.

Everything was going fine until Martinez was pulled over in a routine traffic stop last year. Officially in the court system, she eventually caught the attention of ICE, whose officials have a habit of trolling court dockets for Hispanic names and “lurking” in the courtroom.

“We learned that Laura had a court date a week after our lunch, and at that point she would probably be picked up and separated from her kids,” O’Rear said. “With her being a single mom of two minor children, we perceived that to be an emergency.”

The St. Andrews team scrambled to convert their Sunday school room into a suitable living space for three people. They’ve partnered with law students from Case Western Reserve University and representatives from the NE Ohio grassroots group Hola to assist Martinez in pursuing a visa. They’ve also begun hosting a monthly series of sanctuary concerts to fund the family’s stay.

“We’ve become a community together,” O’Rear said. “We’re obligated — joyfully obligated to share what we have with our neighbors and welcome the stranger as if they’re a brother or sister. We saw the potential action by ICE to be contrary to Christian teachings, and we acted as best we could to help.”

That’s where the sanctuary movement is rooted, in what many congregations view as a moral duty. It’s a unique political struggle grounded in faith and family values. While U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions cites the Bible to justify family separation at the border, the number of congregations involved in the sanctuary movement has more than doubled since 2016 (1,100 total, up from 450).

Another Ohio congregation, Forest Hill Presbyterian Church in Cleveland Heights, has housed Leonor Garcia and her family since last September. She and her husband mistakenly pursued a fraudulent notario* who promised a fix for their immigration status and instead left them with deportation orders.

The two moved to Akron and, in the process of buying a home, were tracked down by ICE. Garcia’s husband was deported, but she was granted a stay of removal to care for her three U.S.-born children. She began going to ICE check-ins every three months, then every six months, then once a year. But at a check-in in 2017, things changed. ICE wanted her back six months later.

At that appointment, ICE put an ankle bracelet on her and ordered her to return in mid-September with a plane ticket to Mexico.

By that time, Forest Hill had already engaged in the sanctuary movement. In early 2017, its national organization, the Presbyterian Church (USA), had distributed Sanctuary: A Discernment Guide for Congregations. The document includes a pledge to “resist the newly elected administration’s policy proposals to target and deport millions of undocumented immigrants and discriminate against marginalized communities.”

“We will open up our congregations and communities as sanctuary spaces for those targeted by hate,” it continued, “and work alongside our friends, families, and neighbors to ensure the dignity and human rights of all people.”

As the larger faith community deepens its involvement in the sanctuary movement, Espinal says it’s a chance for the immigrant community to lead their own revolution. She’s already been in (virtual) conversations with her fellow sanctuary leaders, including Garcia, to talk strategy and offer support.

“We discuss what are the strategies we can use collectively,” Espinal said, “but also equally important is keeping our moral spirit intact.”

There are nearly 50 public cases of sanctuary, and that number is bound to grow. Rubén Castilla Herrera, who’s at the center of Espinal’s case, said the need for sanctuary is as real as ever, as more families are considering that route. Herrera is working with another family at the moment who is weighing the option, but was unable to disclose any names.

But, with any growing movement comes attention — good and bad. And in a time when previously relied upon standards can be discarded and replaced at any moment, Espinal and her accompanying resistors face a stark reality: could ICE choose to strip places of worship of their protected status to curb the number of people seeking sanctuary?

“Yes,” said Espinal. “But the fact that we’re growing the movement is going to make that harder to happen.”

“And might I add,” said Herrera, “We’re kind of planning for that. That is a very real possibility and we know that, so that’s part of our strategizing as well. That’s why we need a collective, because ultimately that could happen, but the more people that enter [sanctuary], the harder that’s going to be.”


*Notarios are individuals who represent themselves as qualified legal advisers for immigration or other matters of law, but have no such qualification, and have a reputation of victimizing members of immigrant communities.

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