There’s little about Ohio’s Columbus Mennonite Church that marks it as a sanctuary. Only a small cardboard sign by the parking lot proclaims, in English, Spanish, and Arabic, “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.” Inside, however, is a different story. Behind the church’s nursery, up the stairs from the pastor’s office, is a small room with two beds and a makeshift mini-kitchen. Down the hall is a new shower, installed after Edith Espinal, an undocumented immigrant with a deportation notice from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, came to live at the church full-time in October 2017.
Espinal is one of about 50 people currently living in public sanctuary in the United States, according to Church World Service. She’s one of two public cases in Columbus alone. (A third woman has also taken sanctuary in the city, but her case is still private, meaning she does not want any press coverage.) Her security at Columbus Mennonite is based largely on the assumption that ICE officers won’t enter a church building. This isn’t law, but rather a policy established in a 2011 memo by then-ICE Director John Morton, who advised field officers and agents to avoid enforcement actions in so-called sensitive locations, which include schools, hospitals, and churches.
Espinal’s was “a classic case of someone we’d consider to go into sanctuary,” according to Joseph Mas, a Cuban refugee, trial attorney, and congregant at Columbus Mennonite. Because she had been reporting to ICE in the hopes of attaining legal status, ICE was able to monitor her closely. Once the agency concluded her appeal process had reached a dead end, she became vulnerable. “They were deporting the people they could find the easiest, and the people they were finding the easiest were the people reporting to ICE,” he told me. “I find that so repulsive that I have trouble talking about it.”
The number of people seeking public sanctuary increased significantly after President Donald Trump’s inauguration. Through a series of executive actions, Trump has bolstered the power of ICE and limited legal options for undocumented immigrants like Espinal, who has no criminal record, has lived in the country for two decades, and has raised a family here. Furthermore, it’s not just that more people are going into sanctuary—they’re also staying longer. Daniel Neyoy-Ruiz, who kicked off the newest phase of the sanctuary movement by entering sanctuary in 2014, left 28 days later with a stay of deportation in his hand. Espinal doesn’t expect a reprieve any time soon.
Activists now wonder if anyone can get out of sanctuary in the Trump age. Worse, they worry that authorities will soon breach those sensitive locations. In November, Samuel Oliver-Bruno was arrested during a biometrics appointment with ICE. Oliver-Bruno had been living in sanctuary in a North Carolina Methodist church for nearly a year, but left to attend what he believed was a mere check-in. Clergy members, congregants, and activists tried to block the van taking him away after his appointment—all in all, 27 were arrested. A week later, Oliver-Bruno was deported to Mexico.
Oliver-Bruno’s deportation came as a shot across the bow. “I would bet in the next six months, we’ll see them start to move into those sensitive locations,” Columbia University law professor Katherine Franke told me. “They’ve done it in courts, they’ve done it in schools, and they said they wouldn’t do it there either. I think they’ll start taking the undocumented people and start arresting the hosts.”
If the 2011 memo doesn’t hold, sanctuary organizers say they are ready for whatever comes next. “This is really an act of resistance above all else right now,” Mas explained. “An act of resistance on the part of those of us who are not facing Edith’s choice, but nevertheless want to be a part of the struggle.”
Religious institutions have a special status in the American popular imagination, which means that, on a small scale, the sanctuary movement has been successful in protecting some individuals from deportation. But if ICE starts knocking down church doors, organizers are relying on religion’s moral clout and its special relationship to the state to force a larger shift in public opinion. The sanctuary movement, which dates back to the 1980s, is thus a test of whether such arguments still have sway in a hyper-partisan age that has broken down any consensus of what constitutes a decent, humane society. And it is a test of whether any institution can lay claim to some higher moral authority in politics, even among those who have traditionally identified as religious voters.
Espinal is originally from Michoacán, Mexico, which is on the State Department’s “do not travel” list for its persistent high crime. She was 16 years old when she came to the United States with her father in 1995. She grew up without her mother, one of the many reasons she doesn’t want to be separated from her own three children. As an adult, Espinal led what she calls a “normal life.” She worked as a line leader in a packaging facility in Columbus, often taking weekend shifts. She shopped at the mall with her daughter. She watched her son’s soccer games.
Espinal’s asylum bid was denied in 2015, and she has spent several years appealing that decision. In January of 2017, she was ordered to begin regular check-ins with an ICE officer. She was told to come every three months, but soon after the frequency was increased to every two weeks. In August 2017, she was given her final deportation notice, along with an ankle monitor.
On a warm Sunday later that month, about 70 members of Columbus Mennonite gathered after church to decide whether to give Espinal sanctuary. Columbus Mennonite calls itself an “inclusive congregation seeking to follow Jesus’ teachings of love to all, justice for all, and fellowship with all.” To the members of the church, the biblical message was clear: Jesus would support sanctuary. But where would Espinal live? How would her day-to-day needs be met? Where would she take a shower? And would hosting her put a target on the church’s back?
Mas, the trial attorney, educated his fellow congregants on the law against harboring “unauthorized individuals” in the United States, which can be punishable by prison time. The church’s pastor, Joel Miller, was concerned that he would be subject to prosecution. “Joel got very emotional because he’s got three little girls,” Gwen Reiser, the church’s office administrator, told me. “And he said, ‘I just don’t know if I can do that.’”
The community rallied behind him. “The rest of the church just said, ‘Well, we’re not going to let that happen to you, if they’re going to arrest somebody they’re going to arrest the whole church because we’re all agreeing to do this together,’” Reiser said.
Three days later, the congregants met again. This time Espinal was there, wearing her ankle monitor. During their discussion of sanctuary, Espinal turned on loud music on her phone and stuffed it into her sock, in case the monitor contained a listening device. After meeting Espinal, the congregants of Columbus Mennonite voted overwhelmingly in favor of taking her in.
“Now this is my life,” she told me when I visited her shortly before Thanksgiving. For Espinal, a 41-year-old with pale olive skin and dark shoulder-length hair, the church is both a refuge and a prison. “It’s very difficult to live in sanctuary because you feel very depressed, the first months, the first days,” said Espinal, who wears a long gold chain with a cross around her neck. “You don’t know exactly what’s going on.” Her husband, who works at a scrap yard, comes to visit every day. Her kids come often, for weekends and dinners, with her daughter sometimes spending the night in her extra bed. Another church, First Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbus, provides all the funding for Espinal’s meals.
But Espinal cannot leave the church, for fear of being deported. In June, one of her sons landed in the emergency room for appendicitis, and in September, he was injured in a car accident. Both times, Espinal was unable to be with him in the hospital. He, too, was born in Mexico and is undocumented, and so Espinal also worries that ICE might retaliate against him for her decision to seek sanctuary. (Her other two children were born in the United States.)
When Espinal first moved into the church, Gwen Reiser was worried that she wasn’t getting enough exercise, so she proposed walking up and down the church staircases with her. Every day, the two women walk up three flights of stairs, down a hall past rows of classrooms, down three flights of stairs, and back to the other side. They do this 15 times.
Both women are mothers, so they often swap stories about their children. Today, Reiser is one of Espinal’s closest confidants in the congregation. “I sort of can’t imagine life without her at this point,” Reiser said.
Espinal also has biweekly meetings with a team of approximately 15 volunteers who help her manage her case. In this respect, Espinal is one of the lucky ones. She has an accomplished attorney and prominent organizers on her side. Many people in Columbus know her name. And yet. “She has had wonderful press, but she’s still here,” said Miller, the church’s pastor. “As good as that has been, it hasn’t done anything to get her out.”
There have been some success stories to give Espinal hope. Last May, Jeanette Vizguerra was able to leave sanctuary in a Denver church after being granted a temporary stay of immigration that will protect her from deportation until March of 2019. Several more people left sanctuary following the Supreme Court’s decision in Pereira v. Sessions in June, which opened up a new legal avenue for relief for some undocumented immigrants. And in October, Minerva Cisneros Garcia was able to go free from a church in Greensboro, North Carolina, after an immigration judge vacated her deportation order.
Still, the sanctuary movement is up against a brutal and unpredictable opponent. The current U.S. deportation regime was developed under President Barack Obama, but the Trump administration has leaned into its cruelty. Since taking office, Trump has expanded Homeland Security removal guidelines to include people without a criminal record, detained immigrants at their ICE check-ins regardless of their standing, and expanded denaturalization actions against naturalized U.S. citizens. Trump emphasized his xenophobic positions during the 2018 midterms and shut down the government over funding for a border wall, which suggest that his immigration posture will likely only harden as 2020 approaches.
The first public announcement of sanctuary in the United States was made in 1967, at the height of the anti-Vietnam War movement. Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr., a chaplain at Yale, declared the university’s Battell Chapel a sanctuary for draft resisters. In doing so, he drew on the long and rich tradition of sanctuary. In medieval England, sanctuary was codified in the criminal legal system. Churches served as intermediary spaces for fugitives, where they were promised food and shelter while deciding whether to face trial or leave in exile. They were distinct, sacred spaces, but they were part of the dominant power structure. In a powerful sermon, Coffin turned that around, reframing the modern version of sanctuary as an act of resistance.
“If in the Middle Ages they could offer 40 days to a man who had committed a sin and a crime,” he asked, “could they not today offer an indefinite period to one who had committed no sin?” The act of providing sanctuary, Coffin argued, “should be considered less a means to shield a man, more a means to expose a church, an effort to make a church really a church.”
Coffin deemed sanctuary a moral imperative, the illegality of the act being precisely what made it powerful. His activism laid the groundwork for the sanctuary movement that later took hold in the United States in the 1980s, during a time of religious revival. In that era, more than one million Central Americans, fleeing violence largely caused by civil wars in Guatemala and El Salvador, tried to seek asylum in the U.S. The Reagan administration denied many of their applications, claiming they were economic migrants and not political refugees.
The sanctuary movement began in Tuscon, Arizona, before spreading across Mexico, the U.S. and Canada. It encompassed 400 congregations (including Columbus Mennonite) and comprised 60,000-70,000 participants, according to anthropologist Hilary Cunningham. These sanctuary workers developed a centralized network to cross refugees into the United States and provide them with shelter and transport. Secular groups joined the movement, and entire cities declared themselves sanctuaries.
This new kind of sanctuary was a “cultural jurisdiction based in a believing community,” as Cunningham wrote. The movement drew power from the separation of church and state, the idea being that border patrol officers bursting into churches would be seen as anathema to American civil society. It also drew power from the fact that it was not formally codified in any legal system. Rather, it was a purely moral declaration that the U.S. deportation regime was unacceptable and that human lives are sacred—a declaration that gained added weight because it came from a church.
One of the movement’s biggest accomplishments was that it led to amnesty for nearly three million immigrants via the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, according to Judith McDaniel, a social science professor at the University of Arizona who participated in the 1980s sanctuary efforts. The law was passed just several months after eight sanctuary workers were convicted on various felony charges for their involvement with the movement. Their trial galvanized public support for sanctuary, and none of those convicted ended up going to prison. “The government wasn’t stupid,” said McDaniel. “That would have been asking for martyrdom.”
Today’s sanctuary movement, often referred to as the “new sanctuary movement,” is far less centralized than that of the 1980s, according to McDaniel. And while it overlaps with efforts to protect the asylum rights of new immigrants, its primary benefactors are individuals who have already been living in the United States and are being threatened with deportation.
The goal of the new sanctuary movement is twofold: to stop such deportations, and to bear witness to a system so broken and inhumane that it is driving people to live in churches. It also poses a broader question: If society is willing to leave those people alone when they’re in a church, why not expand that boundary? “To me, religion at its best is saying, ‘What we’ve decided is special someplace is actually special everywhere,’” Miller said.
Sanctuary cities—where local law enforcement limit their cooperation with federal immigration officials—have been deemed lawless outliers by President Trump and are regular targets for attack on conservative outlets like Fox News. But on a local level, the sanctuary movement has made inroads into white communities that have otherwise been hostile or indifferent to the fate of largely Latinx immigrants. “It’s putting names and faces to the bigger problem,” said Reiser. “Whenever an immigration article is in the newspaper, I’m reading it, to find out what’s going on, because it could possibly affect Edith and her family.”
Over the past several months, Samantha Shivener’s commitment to the sanctuary movement has deepened. “When you have a relationship with somebody, it makes it harder to ignore,” said Shivener, who is the ministry coordinator at First English Lutheran Church, also in Columbus. Since July, the church has been home to Miriam Vargas and her two young daughters. Vargas, who grew up in Honduras and came to the United States in 2005, is undocumented. She was first picked up by ICE officers in 2013, but was released because she was six months pregnant with her second daughter. In 2018, she was given a final deportation order.
Shivener has developed a particular fondness for Vargas’s older daughter, who shares her love of Harry Potter. The young girl often drops by the office, and Shivener almost always stops her work to be with her. “I know she probably feels like she bugs me but it actually brightens my day,” Shivener said.
This is a common transformation in the churches that host sanctuary leaders. Becoming familiar with these women’s stories is part of the process. For white congregants, so is confronting the privilege that allowed them to keep their distance for so long. “For a long time, white middle class churches just kind of did their own thing,” said Pastor Sally M. Padgett of First English. “And now this issue is being put in front of them and for better or worse, they’re having to say, ‘How am I going to live out my faith?’”
There is evidence that the sanctuary movement is moving out into suburban and rural churches, according to Jennie Belle, an organizer with the Church World Service. She points to the fact that, for the first time, a church in South Carolina recently announced it is willing to host undocumented immigrants. “But a lot of these rural and suburban areas don’t have the relationships formed,” Belle said. “They’re like, we’re ready to go, but it’s like, no you need to slow down and make these relationships. If they’re going to come and stay with you they need to know they can trust you.”
The process of sanctuary is slow-moving. “It’s not efficient,” Rubén Castilla Herrera, an organizer with the Columbus Sanctuary Collective, told me. But for a movement based on intense relationship-building between individuals, that is the point. The question is whether those relationships can grow to the point of affecting U.S. immigration and deportation policies.
As of January 2018, there were more than 1,110 congregations in the sanctuary movement, and the number has grown since then. These include not just churches, but mosques, synagogues, and other houses of worship. Only a small portion of these congregations have physically sheltered immigrants, because ultimately, it’s not up to a church to make that decision. It’s up to undocumented individuals to decide whether they want to seek sanctuary.
The movement would likely benefit from a larger scale. On an individual basis, dozens of lives have already been saved, but when does sanctuary become too big to ignore? “I would love to see 1,000 sanctuary congregations say, we refuse to live by these rules,” Pastor Miller said. “ICE would have to out themselves and start coming into churches, and that would really do something.”
When Espinal moved in, Columbus Mennonite was in crisis mode, according to Miller, fearing blowback from law enforcement. Once it became clear that she was safe for the time being, the congregation’s attentions turned to her legal case and advocacy efforts. “For a little bit sanctuary is the solution because it kept her in the country, and it kept her with her family, and that’s a success,” Miller said. “But after that it’s like, oh, yeah, here she is and here we are.”
Espinal is pushing for legislative relief on a number of fronts: local, state, and federal. So far not much has happened. Columbus City Council members have come to visit her, but they have yet to pass a (largely symbolic) resolution supporting her. Espinal has asked her congresswoman, Representative Joyce Beatty, to introduce a private bill (legislation that only applies to a particular individual) to grant her legal status in the U.S. Organizers don’t expect such a bill to pass, but they say that introducing it could be enough for ICE to grant Espinal a stay of removal. Her team has also asked Ohio Senators Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman to help Espinal get deferred action from ICE.
Her advocacy efforts have created some tension, both within her team and between national organizers and church leaders. “She has nothing to lose by publicly challenging Democratic public officials, for example,” said Miller. Columbus Mennonite, on the other hand, needs to maintain relationships with local leaders who help the church with other initiatives. “I’ve felt uncomfortable at some points by how much she wants to push, and there have been some times where I’ve said, ‘We need to hold back on that,’ and I was probably wrong.”
But the broader challenge stems from forces beyond the control of Espinal or the sanctuary movement. Joseph Mas told me he believes sanctuary is “a terrible idea in the Trump era” because the administration has “no moral center” and the moral appeal of the sanctuary movement has nowhere to resonate. It seems doubtful that the religious and moral calls of the sanctuary movement will hold purchase with Trump’s base of white conservative Evangelicals, whose views on immigration are shaped far more by militant conservatism than by scripture.
If ICE officers begin bursting into churches, however, the contemporary sanctuary movement could start to resemble the Civil Rights Movement, where it took violent state response to nonviolent resistance for white American lawmakers to begin changing policy.
Some organizers worry that such images may not be enough. The cruelty of the Trump administration has already been laid bare on countless occasions, but nevertheless it continues. “Why wouldn’t the death of a little Guatemalan girl at the hands of border patrol, why wouldn’t that be the optic that would turn it around?” asked Judith McDaniel, referring to Jakelin Caal, a seven-year-old who died in December while in Customs and Border Protection custody, shortly after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border with her father. Still, she recognized that there are differences: “I guess because she’s a brown girl and if ICE went into churches there would probably be white parishioners who would be pushed aside.”
Mas told me he believes violent confrontation may be necessary for real change to take place, for the moral argument to resonate with the majority of white Americans. “It’s a great irony that the history of the United States has shown that until bullets start flying, until people die, until people are gassed, that the nation doesn’t pay attention,” Mas said. “And that is where we find ourselves at this moment. We’re at that intersection now.”
This story has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.