Documentary Tells Story of Undocumented Immigrant Who Spent Three Years in Mennonite Church Sanctuary

Edith Espinal arrives at Columbus Mennonite Church in Columbus, Ohio, to take sanctuary on Oct. 2, 2017. Photo courtesy of Matthew Leahy and Elisa Stone Leahy
Edith Espinal arrives at Columbus Mennonite Church in Columbus, Ohio, to take sanctuary on Oct. 2, 2017. Photo courtesy of Matthew Leahy and Elisa Stone Leahy

(RNS) — Edith Espinal, who spent more than three years in church sanctuary to ride out the Trump administration’s harsh immigration crackdown, is having a pretty good September.

Last week, the 44-year-old Mexican native was granted a work permit, giving her hope that she will be able to support herself seven months after securing assurances she was no longer an immediate target for deportation and could go home.

And on Saturday (Sept. 18), a documentary portraying her three solitary years at Columbus Mennonite Church in Columbus, Ohio, will be livestreamed as part of the New York Latino Film Festival.

In the 24-minute “A Shelter for Edith,” by Matthew Leahy and Elisa Stone Leahy, Espinal narrates her 40 months at the church herself. The footage, taken by Leahy and Stone, both members of the church when Espinal’s stay began, was originally intended for various social media fundraising campaigns advocating on her behalf. But when the coronavirus pandemic hit, the couple decided to use it to construct a documentary.

“We thought, ‘We’re in isolation, and Edith has also been in isolation for years,’” said Leahy. “The juxtaposition was interesting to us. We wanted to highlight the isolation she was experiencing and what it would feel like to be in a church that long by yourself.”

Espinal, who is married and has three adult children, had been living in the United States since she was 16. She had a work permit that was regularly renewed at her required check-ins with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. She has no criminal record.

But after former President Trump took office in 2016, he signed multiple executive orders to apprehend and detain undocumented immigrants. Espinal was ordered to leave the country and given a GPS ankle monitor to make sure she did.

Instead, on Oct. 2, 2017, she made the decision to enter sanctuary. Houses of worship — along with schools and hospitals — are considered “sensitive locations” where federal immigration enforcement officers are unlikely to arrest, search or interview people under most circumstances.

Espinal was one of dozens of undocumented immigrants who fled to churches across the country as part of the New Sanctuary Movement.

That movement has mostly drawn down following President Biden’s January executive order restraining ICE from arresting and deporting undocumented immigrants who do not pose a threat to public safety.

The documentary depicts Espinal’s struggles while in sanctuary. She was not able to attend her daughter Stephanie’s high school graduation. In 2019, she received a letter from Immigration and Customs Enforcement informing her she owed the government $497,777 in civil penalties for disobeying orders to leave the country.

Several other sanctuary dwellers also received fines, which were later dropped.

Espinal, who wears a rosary around her neck and attended Catholic churches most of her life, now attends the Mennonite church where she spent her confinement.

She is living with her family in Columbus and said she wanted to study cosmetology and is working with a lawyer to hopefully get a permanent residency.

“My goal is to fix my immigration status and if possible obtain citizenship if God wills it,” she wrote in a text message to the Leahys.

Another documentary released in 2018, “Santuario,” tells of Juana Luz Tobar Ortega, an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala who took sanctuary in an Episcopal church in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Source: Religion News Service