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Edith Espinal, an undocumented Mexican-born woman who has lived in the Columbus area for decades, is shown here being welcomed by the Columbus Mennonite Church, which for the last year has provided her sanctuary to protect her from deportation. Pastor Joel Miller, pastor of the Columbus church, will speak this Saturday, Oct. 20, at 7 p.m., at Rockford Chapel, of his church’s experience in offering sanctuary. (Submitted photo)

Edith Espinal, an undocumented Mexican-born woman who has lived in the Columbus area for decades, is shown here being welcomed by the Columbus Mennonite Church, which for the last year has provided her sanctuary to protect her from deportation. Pastor Joel Miller, pastor of the Columbus church, will speak this Saturday, Oct. 20, at 7 p.m., at Rockford Chapel, of his church’s experience in offering sanctuary. (Submitted photo)

Sanctuary explored as ICE activity increases

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When friends of Dayton attorney Kathleen Kersh express their outrage at the Trump administration’s practice of separating immigrant families at the U.S./Mexican border, Kersh reminds them: the very same activity is taking place in Ohio, and at an ever-increasing rate.

“This has become a real crisis for Ohio,” Kersh said in a phone interview last Friday. “People don’t know how hard Ohio is being hit.”

This Saturday, Oct. 20, local Quakers aim to spread the word about the increasing peril for undocumented immigrants in Ohio at a free and public event, “Building a Sanctuary Support Network in our Village.” The event, which takes place at 7 p.m. in Rockford Chapel on the Antioch College campus, features Pastor Joel Miller of the  Columbus Mennonite Church in Columbus, a church that has sheltered an undocumented woman for more than a year.

The aim of the event is both to educate the public and to begin a communitywide discussion about what those in the village can do, according to Pat Dewees, one of the event organizers, in an interview last week.

“Once people understand what’s happening and how close it is to the village, we hope to start a conversation about what it means to be a sanctuary village,” she said.

Ohio has become the site of increasingly active efforts by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, to remove undocumented immigrants, many of whom have lived in the country for decades, according to Kersh, an immigration and civil rights lawyer at Dayton’s ABLE Law, the legal aid firm for western Ohio.

Two workplace raids this summer in northern Ohio garnered media attention when several hundred undocumented immigrant employees were arrested. ICE officials described one of the raids as the largest workplace raid in recent history in this country. 

The workplace arrests signal the increasing ICE activity in the state after President Trump, soon after taking office in 2017, announced his “zero tolerance” stance on illegal immigration, making the issue a priority for his administration. While former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama had focused on deporting only those illegal immigrants with criminal convictions, Trump declared that all undocumented immigrants, even those who have lived productive and law-abiding lives in this country for decades, were at risk of deportation.

“We saw almost immediately here in Ohio a change in the prioritization to people with no criminal record,” said Kersh, who currently has several clients who are fighting deportation efforts from ICE.

While southern and central Ohio have not seen the large workplace raids that took place in the northern part of the state, ICE has had an increasing presence in the area, according to Kersh. In recent months, the agency has arrested several undocumented immigrants in Cincinnati and also appears to have targeted a community of black Mauritanians in Columbus. In that Arab-controlled west African country, blacks are considered second-class citizens and are literally enslaved, but the Trump administration remains focused on sending them back. While in September five deportations were stayed by a judge, the immigrants remain jailed, according to a Sept. 25 article in the Columbus Dispatch.

While ICE activity in Dayton is less intense than in Columbus and Cincinnati, the agency is still active in the city, according to Kersh. The agency appears to  focus on targeted undocumented individuals in Dayton, although agents have been known to arrest other undocumented persons found at the home of the targeted person, she said.

It’s not clear why Ohio is the site of so much ICE activity, although Kersh suspects it reflects the aggressive approach of the director of the ICE regional Ohio/Michigan office, since a similar uptick in activity is taking place in Michigan.

“It seems like a numbers game,” she said. The public affairs spokesperson for the ICE regional office, Khalid Wall, did not return phone calls seeking comment.

According to the website of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, or AILA, the most recent ICE activity in Ohio was a 10-day operation in both this state and Michigan ending Sept. 25 that netted more than 100 arrests of undocumented immigrants.

According to Kersh, her main concern with current Trump policy is the separation of families. While in the past ICE did not arrest single parents or both parents of children so that the children would still be cared for, ICE under the Trump administration seems unconcerned about the fate of children. 

“I’ve seen in some cases both parents being arrested and the children have to go into the foster care system,” she said. 

In one case she’s worked on, both parents of a child under five were arrested, and the child was sent to live with an aunt. Parents and children have been separated for months at a time, Kersh said, and in another case, both parents were mistakenly deported while their child remained in this country. 

“It was a mess,” Kersh said. “This policy has a horrible effect on families and children.”

Undocumented immigrants, who typically work at low-paying jobs, have few financial or legal resources to help them if they face deportation, according to Kersh. In the Dayton area, ABLE Law is the only firm offering free legal help, although the University of Dayton Law School provides law students at a free clinic.

In some cases, churches have come forward with resources. 

“A lot of churches have stepped up and become community partners,” she said.

Giving sanctuary

One church that has stepped up is the Columbus Mennonite Church in Columbus, which has provided sanctuary for Edith Espinal for a little more than a year. Its pastor, Joel Miller, is speaking at the Quaker event this Saturday.

“A foundational part of our faith is to love your neighbor, and we felt that Edith is our neighbor,” said Pastor Miller in a phone interview this week.

Church members didn’t know Espinal before she made the decision a year ago to seek sanctuary rather than be deported to Mexico, where she grew up in an especially violent area and feared for her safety if forced to return. She was brought to this country by her father when she was 17, and in the decades since has worked in the Columbus area, married and raised three children, who now range in age from 21 to a senior in high school. When her request for asylum was denied by a judge a year ago, Espinal was told to buy an airline ticket to fly back to Mexico and report to the ICE office, without her family. However, she made the decision to seek sanctuary instead.

“Edith is a child of God who fled violence and sought refuge in our country many years ago and wishes to stay united with her family in this city that has become her home,” states the church’s website

When Columbus Mennonite found out about Espinal’s situation, the church made a decision within a week to offer her sanctuary, according to Miller.

“We took a leap, and we’ve been learning ever since,” he said.

Providing sanctuary has realigned church priorities, according to Miller. For one thing, the building has become a focal point for meetings on the immigration issue. For another, it can be challenging for church members to provide Espinal the opportunity for a meaningful life while not leaving the building, since doing so would put her at risk for being picked up by ICE agents.

The biggest challenge, according to Miller, is, what comes next?

“It’s an open question,” he said. “How does sanctuary end? It’s an unknown.”

There are several possible paths for Espinal to gain legal status to stay in the country, but none look especially good, according to Miller. One option is gaining legal status through being sponsored by her oldest son, although that option seems unlikely. Another option is applying for a visa available for those from violence-ridden countries, but that entails a seven-year wait, Miller said.

The best option appears to be to convince either U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown or Sen. Rob Portman to sponsor a private bill to give Espinal a stay of deportation, Miller said, stating that such bills have been successful in the past. Supporters of Espinal are working on this strategy, but it has yet to be finalized, he said.

At his Saturday talk, Miller will give more details about his church’s involvement with the sanctuary movement, and what villagers can do to help. Currently, there are about 50 undocumented immigrants being sheltered in the country, including about five in Ohio, he said.

Growing number of sanctuaries

Sanctuary cities are municipalities (or states) that have adopted policies to limit their cooperation with ICE, according to the website for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR. These policies include a city instructing its police not to question people about their immigration status and refusing to hold undocumented people for ICE to pick up.

About 564 states and municipalities currently have sanctuary status, according to the website, a number that has doubled since Trump became president. The states of California, New York and Illinois offer sanctuary, as do hundreds of cities and counties. While President Trump has declared that federal funding will be denied cities and states that provide sanctuary to undocumented immigrants, 16 municipalities a day are making the pledge to do so, according to the FAIR website.

In Yellow Springs, Village Council member Marianne MacQueen brought the issue to Council a year ago, soon after Trump stated his “zero-tolerance” policy toward undocumented immigrants. At the advice of the Village Solicitor, Council stopped short of declaring Yellow Springs a sanctuary city, and instead passed a resolution affirming itself as a welcoming community to all.

According to Police Chief Brian Carlson in an email this week, local police are continuing a policy of not detaining anyone based solely on immigration issues.

This week, MacQueen says she plans to attend the Saturday event, and that it’s time to revisit the sanctuary city issue. “I will be bringing this back to Council,” she said.

A year into his church taking the leap to shelter an undocumented immigrant, Pastor Miller said he has “no regrets.”

“We’re a church of overwhelmingly  white and middle-class people,” he said, and providing sanctuary for Espinal “allows us to look at this not only as an issue, but as a relationship with an individual and a family.”

Overall, according to Miller, the question is one of values.

“It’s about, what sort of country do we want to be?” he said.

We are on the border

To villager Pat Dewees, one of the event organizers, her Quaker beliefs are foundational in engaging with the sanctuary issue.

“As Quakers we hold the testimony that there is that of God in every person and no one is illegal,” she wrote in a statement. 

The Saturday event was organized by the Yellow Springs Friends Meeting committee on peace and social justice concerns. On a national level, the American Friends Service Committee, which is the Quaker service group, is calling for the abolition of ICE. 

Dewees was also motivated by a recent visit to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. She said she was struck at the museum by the similarity of the Trump administration’s approach to immigration and the beginning of the Nazi movement in Germany in the 1930s.

“It showed me that a lot of the most severe oppressions start with a slow spiral,” she said last week. “It starts with creating an enemy and then causing that enemy harm in ways that people accept. This is what happened in Germany.”

In that country, she said, German citizens initially didn’t realize what was happening to their Jewish neighbors, and then when they became aware, had no context to understand what was happening, so they discounted it. 

Because she sees similarities between the current plight of undocumented immigrants in this country and Nazi Germany, Dewees is gratified that the Quakers are beginning to educate the community on the issue. She also invited representatives of several local faith groups who might connect in a sanctuary effort.

One of those is Joan Chappelle, who will attend the Saturday event as a representative of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. On a national level, the Unitarians have long been involved in the sanctuary movement, she said, and the Miami Valley Unitarian group has become increasingly involved as ICE activity has picked up in Dayton.

On a personal level, Chappelle said, “I hope that people coming across borders into this country find safety on their path to citizenship.”

And while many might perceive the drama of family separation and other tragedies connected to immigration in the Trump era to only play out on the U.S./Mexican border, the issue affects people much closer than that, according to Dewees.

“We are on the border,” she said.

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