Edith Espinal poses for a picture in Columbus Mennonite Church on Feb. 24 in Columbus. Credit: Deborah Eshun | Lantern Reporter

Edith Espinal has the regular routine of a stay-at-home mother.

She wakes in the early hours of the morning to see her teenage daughter off to school. She exercises, cleans and cooks for her family in preparation for dinner when they return.

While her daily tasks are typical, they have not extended past the steps of the Columbus Mennonite Church in over 500 days.

For Ohioans, national issues such as deportation and family separation can seem to only affect the United States southern border. A closer look reveals they affect families in the Columbus community, with one case only 2 1/2 miles away from campus.

Edith is a mother and wife who has lived in the U.S. for more than 20 years. She used to report to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, regularly checking in with officials in hopes of receiving her legal status.

When her asylum claim was rejected, Edith faced deportation to Mexico, potentially leaving behind her husband, three kids and life in the U.S.

Edith sought sanctuary in the Columbus Mennonite Church in October 2017 and has lived there ever since, making Thursday Day 521 in sanctuary.

Schools, medical facilities and places of worship are considered “sensitive locations,” according to ICE policy, which limits agents’ ability in these spaces.

“It’s not only me. It’s more families [who] need that support, immigrants and refugees,” Edith said through a translator. “It’s too many people who need our politicians to do something, to stand up to do something for the community.”

Austin McCabe Juhnke is the sanctuary coordinator for Edith’s case and has worked with her since a congregationwide vote decided to provide her sanctuary in 2017.  

“Here’s this woman who needs our help, and it was something that I think was a mutual blessing to — I hope Edith — but certainly our congregation, in the sense that it kind of galvanized us around a purpose, a human purpose that was very tangible to us,” McCabe Juhnke said.

Members of the congregation visit during the week, donate food through a meal train program and provide a sense of safety.

Still, the confines of the church take their toll.

“Sometimes I have good days, and sometimes I have very bad days in my feelings,” Edith said.

With over 16 months of living in the upper levels of the church, Edith describes the hardest part of her situation as “la soledad que siento” — “the solitude I feel” — as a result of her restricted freedom and limited access to her family.

Edith has received support not only from the church, but also from the city. Columbus City Council passed a resolution on Feb. 25 in support of Edith and another woman in sanctuary, Miriam Vargas.

Edith’s translator Carrie Vereide, a graduate student at Ohio State in social work, said the resolution is the first big win to show that the City of Columbus stands behind Edith and hopes this will contribute to her eventually going home.

Vereide also said the resolution brought awareness to issues surrounding other families in Columbus who are faced with separation due to immigration policies.

“In supporting Edith, it is a tangible way to create systems of support for everyone — all of the families who are experiencing the same things so we can have a system that is more just and doesn’t separate families,” Vereide said.

But for Edith, she just wants freedom.

“I want to be able to return home to my family. I am fighting to legalize my migration status. These are the results I want,” she said. “I want to be able to return home to my family with legal status and continue to be myself like I’ve always been.”