The Common Good

Living with 'An Illegal:' How a Friendship Changed My Perspective on Immigration

I don’t know what came over me. Was it what Noel Castellanos (CEO of CCDA) had said? What Jim Wallis (President of Sojourners) had said? Perhaps. I couldn’t keep the tears from coming. Walking up Broadway Street in Los Angeles in the middle of a Saturday afternoon as a crowd of people blew horns, held signs, and chanted, “Immigration reform now,” I wept. It was because of Ivone. I was even wearing my Faith is Greater Than Fear shirt but lurking along the sidewalk, not intending to get involved. But it's too late for that. I love Ivone like a sister; I’m already knee-deep in it.

Jim, Noel, and Jenny Yang (World Relief) had just been speaking on a panel at the Justice Conference about immigration reform. Jim said that we had to pass comprehensive immigration reform now, before the summer recess. And I knew in my heart that he was right. Because if we don’t, then Ivone will continue to lie in limbo along with 11 million other aspiring Americans, perhaps being deported in a couple of years. We will both continue to live in uncertainty and fear.

The thought of that overcame me. I began to wonder how I would respond if I were ever faced with that situation. Would I hide her in our basement? Would I chain myself to a courthouse or prison fence? Would I go to Mexico with her so she wouldn’t be in a different legal status just because I was born in the U.S. and Ivone’s parents brought her here from Mexico when she was 6 years old so she could have a better life?

And a better life she has had — because she worked hard for it. A passionate and dedicated student, Ivone hides the fact that she was valedictorian in high school. Due to her academic success and capabilities, she won a scholarship to attend college — something that most undocumented immigrants can only dream of. She excelled there and upon graduation, came to D.C. to advocate on behalf of the immigrant communities she’s worked with.

This is how I met Ivone: A few months after starting at Sojourners, my desk was moved next to hers. Soon we were having lunches and chatting regularly. We became fast friends. One day we met for coffee and she asked me if I was serious about the offer to share some space in my house. She had been collaborating with Sojourners through a fellowship program and was staying in housing specifically for fellows with incredibly low rent. She was invited to extend her fellowship, but the housing was no longer available; therefore, she approached me for housing, as it would be difficult to find reliable housing in D.C. on her fellowship stipend.

I lived in the basement of a house and there was a front area and a back bedroom. I kept all of my things in the front area, leaving the back bedroom to remain fairly empty. I told her the offer still stood, and I invited her to come live in the back bedroom. Ivone then confided in me that she was undocumented, a fact that she shared only with those close to her. In front of her a stood stack of paper half a foot high — the application for deferred action for childhood arrivals (DACA). It included every address she ever lived in, every school she ever attended, every job she ever had, and many references. She was taking a chance by coming out of the shadows and asking me to take a chance by asking to live with me. It was a chance that I decided to take, and this decision was made easy my solid friendship with her that had grown over many months. 

When Ivone first moved in with us, she paid the same rent she had paid while living in the fellowship house. When her DACA work permit came through and she was chosen as the grant recipient at Sojourners to become a full-time, salaried employee as the Immigration Campaigns & Communications Associate, she began to pay equal rent as the rest of us in the house.

I did not know much about immigration reform before beginning my work at Sojourners. I grew up in a middle class home in suburban Cincinnati. We certainly had many undocumented workers at our restaurants, farms, and hotels serving us, but I had no relationships with them or understanding of their lives.

Ivone changed all of that.

She broke almost every stereotype that I had ever been told about “illegals.” She is one of the hardest workers I have ever met.

She wants to earn U.S. citizenship but taught me how broken the system is. For years, I had ignorantly thought that undocumented immigrants should just become citizens rather than choosing not to, but Ivone taught me how that is not an option for many people. And for her — who had come as a child to the U.S. and lived here for so long — she would certainly run the risk of being deported before she would be welcomed as a citizen. She showed me the flowchart of options for gaining U.S. citizenship. Most applicants wait 5-10 years, and even after the wait many are not granted citizenship. I learned that our laws are very old and were created for a time period that no longer exists.

As the days and months passed, I not only learned about immigration but also about Ivone. We shared so much space — in our downstairs area with one bathroom, on the walk to work together, and in our cubicle. We grocery shopped for one another, we watched movies and chatted long into the night, and we cooked our favorite meals for each other. In many ways, Ivone has become a best friend like our other two roommates. And yet, because Ivone is very vulnerable in our country, I have developed a sisterly attachment to her so that I cannot type these words without crying and praying and hoping all at the same time that when her work permit expires in September, she will still be welcomed in our country.

I never intended for this to become so personal. I was just being friendly to a co-worker and gracious to a friend. Many others have cared for me and helped me in my life, offering kindness and support to Ivone was simply reciprocating what I had so abundantly received throughout my life.

Of course, Ivone and I argue and get mad at each other and have brought one another to tears — but don’t we all? That is how family is.

And now, it seems that being family is not enough. Giving her everything that I can will not change the laws. The laws themselves must change.

Now I am an advocate of immigration reform. It’s funny how relationships change us. Thanks to Ivone’s bravery in sharing her story and becoming one of the first persons to receive a work permit in the United States under DACA, she is shining great light on the immigrant story in America. I am indebted to her for letting me share her story as well. If she is brave enough to tell, then so must I also be.

Stacey Schwenker is Advertising Sales Associate at Sojourners and has a Masters of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary.

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