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Life as an Undocumented Immigrant in Columbus

Lauren Sega Lauren Sega Life as an Undocumented Immigrant in Columbus
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Right now, there are about 48 undocumented immigrants in sanctuary across the country. Several are in Ohio. One, Edith Espinal, is here in Columbus.

Since October 10, 2017 — her deportation date — Espinal has been under virtual house arrest at Columbus Mennonite Church (CMC) in Clintonville. As a place of worship, CMC is considered by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to be a “sensitive location” and therefore won’t be targeted for “enforcement action.” Meaning, as long as she stays inside, ICE won’t be breaking down the CMC doors to detain and deport Espinal.

It also means she hasn’t been back to her home on the west side in six months. Her family still lives there — her husband and three children, Isidro, 21, Brandow, 19, and Stephanie, 16.

Espinal, and in large part her family, are now supported by CMC, its congregation, and community members and organizers. The grassroots effort has taken many forms, with local residents and business owners offering groceries, Kroger cards, and prepared meals; others offering to regularly pay the family’s bills; the church itself housing Espinal, who’s actually Catholic; and a core team of organizers working around the legal aspects of her case in hopes that a judge will agree to hear it.

Rubén Castilla Herrera, who manages the Ohio Interfaith Immigrant and Migrant Justice Coalition, is the organizing hub at the center of Espinal’s case. It begins in 2013, when Espinal and 30 others staged a protest at the U.S.-Mexico border against the Obama administration’s record-setting number of deportations. Known as the DREAM30, they’d all lived at least part of their lives in the United States (Espinal with her father as a minor and young adult), and they were looking for a way back in.

Espinal was granted advanced parole, a gray area in documentation that allowed her to legally reside in the United States with her family while her application for asylum was considered. For the following four years, Espinal appeared at regular ICE check-ins, usually accompanied by Herrera or other volunteers.

Espinal eventually presented her case at the U.S. Immigration Court in Cleveland, in front of Judge D. William Evans, now retired. Espinal’s attorney Lizbeth Mateo described Judge Evans plainly as tough and mean. She said his demeanor ultimately led Espinal to withhold evidence that was key to her case.

“There were instances when the judge simply dismissed her testimony and questioned her in a way that would have made any person in Edith’s shoes feel like it wasn’t worth it to say certain things, or that it was her fault that certain things happened,” Mateo said. “That really made Edith feel that she shouldn’t present anymore evidence, or that it wasn’t worth the judge’s time.”

Evans denied her asylum case, as he was known to do. Between 2012 and 2017, Evans decided 418 asylum cases, and 381 of them were denied.

After that, Herrera said they were anticipating a deportation order. It just happened to be the one week no one went with her to her ICE check-in.

“I’ll never forget. She came, all her three children were with her, it was in the morning, and I had not left home. She asked if she could come and talk to me, and she sat on my couch at home with her three children, crying, all of them,” Rubén recalled. “Really, they didn’t know what to do. It was at that point she asked me if it was possible for her to go into sanctuary.”

Espinal wasn’t new to the term “sanctuary.” She’d been involved in immigrant justice work for years, and she knew what she was getting into. Several months before she received her deportation order, local churches were in training to become sanctuaries. When the day came, it was the Columbus Mennonite Church that, with or without sufficient resources at the time, decided to take Espinal in.

“It’s interesting, because in general we as people, when we don’t do things, we say it’s because we don’t have the resources, especially when you don’t have that in your budget. So, resources is always a question,” Rubén said, “but the sense of urgency and need is what we encourage people to look at first, and then the resources can be found, and that’s a hard sell.”

CMC Pastor Joel Miller said the church went ahead, knowing what they were taking on was in a legal gray area and that they would be committed indefinitely, because of the support they felt from the congregation and the community.

“Welcome, Edith.”

“There have been different people from the church and from the wider community who’ve befriended Edith,” Miller said. ”She’s taking voice lessons, piano lessons from people in the congregation. There’s a yoga class that met last night — a yoga instructor from the neighborhood is basically volunteering his time.”

For Espinal, the community has been a big help as she again learns to live without her family. She offers her own cooking classes as well and has been known to cater fundraisers.

“I have established a community here, people who’ve been supportive of us and have helped us unconditionally,” she said, as translated by Herrera. “I don’t know what it is, but I’m already thinking there’s going to be a way that I come back and show my appreciation to this community and this church and just the people who’ve been around me.”

Beyond the church itself, Herrera and other organizers are calling on local, state and federal officials to intervene on behalf of Espinal. Several Columbus City Councilmembers, including Elizabeth Brown and both former and current Council presidents Zach Klein and Shannon Hardin have paid visits. Mayor Andrew Ginther also stopped by, bringing lunch with him.

Rubén is expecting council to pass a resolution in symbolic support of Espinal, similar to when Columbus was declared a sanctuary city. Although it wouldn’t affect policy, organizer Dan Clark, who’s with the United Church of Christ, said it would take the struggle into the next tier. Their aim is to get someone like Senators Rob Portman and Sherrod Brown or Representative Joyce Beatty to visit CMC and hear Espinal’s story.

Portman hasn’t been to the church, but he has shown some support in defending Espinal’s son Brandow from harassment by ICE.

“Portman has an immigration case manager based here in Columbus who has a lot of experience and has been supportive and has called ICE on Espinal’s behalf,” Clark said, “Particularly when ICE was harassing her son Brandow. Even though he had a court date far out in advance, they were making him come in for weekly check-ins when he’s a recent high school graduate and trying to establish himself as a working person. This was very disruptive, so they were supportive in getting that to end.”

Once Portman, Brown or Beatty hear Espinal’s story, Clark said they’re hoping one of them would make a call to ICE and encourage them to request the Court of Appeals to reopen Espinal’s case.

“It only means she’ll have a chance to present all the evidence that she was not able to present during her first asylum hearing,” said Mateo. “That’s all we’re asking the government, we’re not asking them to grant anything at this point, we’re asking for a simple chance of getting all her facts together.”

Much of this plan is based on discretion: the discretion of each official to agree to even hear Espinal’s case, the discretion of them to then call ICE on her behalf, the discretion of ICE who can influence the Court of Appeals, and ultimately the discretion of the court itself. That said, the team has several irons in the fire.

Should Beatty be persuaded, she could introduce a private bill which would call for Espinal to be granted citizenship. While that wouldn’t change anything for anyone else, it would raise awareness around Espinal’s case and the struggle of 11 million other undocumented people in the country.

At the same time, Espinal’s oldest son Isidro has filed a petition with United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) for her to become a legal resident. Any U.S. citizen who’s 21 years or older can file such a petition on their parent’s behalf.

For now, it’s a waiting game, and it’s not been easy on Espinal or her family:

Espinal said that while she’s an unintentional leader of a movement here in Columbus, she’s just one of 11 million undocumented people in the United States who are looking for comprehensive and compassionate immigration reform. While she’s pessimistic about the possibility for change under the current administration, she said that the solidarity she finds with the others now in sanctuary is what keeps the immigrant community strong.

“We all know how ICE treats the immigrant community in a way that’s not respectful and is traumatic. What I think this [movement] is going to have more of an impact on is not so much ICE, because ICE will be ICE, but on the immigrant community. It will make them stronger,” Espinal said.

Molly Shack, with the Ohio Organizing Collaborative, said they’re looking for this local movement to “bubble up toward bigger action” and connect with similar struggles around the country. Some of the 48 in sanctuary have already connected virtually to socialize and strategize.

“There’s a movement across the country of folks pushing for change, and I fully expect to see change. It certainly takes more time than I’d like it to but I think we will see change. We cannot build a wall, and we cannot deport 11 million people,” Shack said. “So our choices are, are we going to terrorize people with this system of immigration and detaining people and tearing families apart, or are we going to create a pathway for families to stay together and to be safe and have a healthier community that includes everybody?”

For more information, or to help out, visit uujo.wufoo.com.

All photos by Lauren Sega.

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