Westmont Magazine The Christian Face of Immigration
By David Batstone ’80, Executive Editor of Sojourners Magazine
Diana Villanueva-Hoeckley did not take the typical path to Westmont College, a Christian liberal arts college in Montecito, California. The 19-year-old sophomore was born in Guatemala, and then smuggled into the United States at the age of 7. Her story makes you want to cry. What the U.S. Congress may do to her makes you want to scream.
Diana’s mother came to the United States legally in the mid-1990s. Once she had established some semblance of a life for herself in the Los Angeles area, she tried to obtain a visa for her daughter to come and live with her. The U.S. Embassy turned down her application. Desperate to have her daughter by her side, she paid a “coyote,” or migrant smuggler, to deliver Diana to California.
Imagine the fright of being told at age 7 that you must take a long, covert journey with a stranger, all alone. Diana today can only recall snippets: a bus journey, a short plane ride, hanging out at borders waiting for the right moment to cross. “I just kept focused on how great it would be together with my mother again,” says Diana.
Not long after her arrival into the U.S., Diana and her now-pregnant mother moved to Santa Barbara. Diana’s sister, Estrellita, was born. Earning a meager income from a string of housecleaning jobs, her mother moved the family into a small trailer. Diana attended public schools in the Santa Barbara area starting in the third grade.
During her freshman year in high school, Diana took note that her mother was not looking well. Lacking health insurance, her mother visited a health clinic serving a low-income population. At first she was diagnosed with pneumonia, but slowly it became apparent that something much more serious was going on. She had lung cancer, and died within two years.
Chris Hoeckley and Cheri Larsen Hoeckley are both professors at Westmont College. Their daughter, Mackenzie, was Estrellita’s classmate at the local public school. Many there were heartbroken by Diana and Estrellita’s loss. The Hoeckleys reached out and embraced the girls into their family.
The Hoeckleys had for some time looked to adoption as an avenue for growing their family. Their desire to parent matched their religious conviction that God calls us to care for the orphans in need. They went through the county process to legally adopt the Villanueva children. In the midst of much tragedy, the Hoeckleys, now five in number, patched together a loving connection.
If only the story could move on from there to focus on the life experiences that all families look to create. But most families do not face criminal prosecution. Yet, Diana may one day soon be charged as a felon for illegally immigrating to this country 13 years ago. And her adoptive parents also could be criminally charged for aiding and abetting an illegal immigrant.
Legislation currently being debated in the U.S. House of Representatives actually contains these provisions. Diana cannot believe this is happening in a country she has come to love. “I’m shocked that people don’t see me as someone who belongs here; this is my home,” she told me sadly. Though Diana was legally adopted by the Hoeckleys, in many renditions of the legislation she would not be protected. And now that she is 19, she would be prosecuted as an adult.
“I look around and see so many immigrants here who are working so hard to make a good life,” Diana said. “Why can’t people see the big picture?”
Indeed, the big picture tells a different story to the political fear-mongering on immigration. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that nearly 12 million undocumented immigrants are living in the United States. A number of studies demonstrate that they are anything but a “drain” on the U.S. economy as is widely feared. Douglass S. Massey, a Princeton University professor, has documented the contributions of undocumented workers to the government: 62 percent have taxes withheld from their paychecks, and 66 percent pay Social Security. Their payments to Social Security totaled $7 billion in 2004, and in the same year they paid $1.5 billion to Medicare. Ironically, Massey found these workers usually don’t take advantage of these programs, fearing the INS will be alerted to their presence in this country, Forbes reported.
All too many Americans do see immigrants as criminals, unfortunately. The New York Times on April 25 cited a Survey USA poll taken in the state of Kansas that shows nearly three-quarters of adults in the sample surveyed agree to the proposal that “the United States should find and deport all illegal immigrants.” If only they could meet the Dianas who will suffer from this xenophobic zeal.
Diana studies in Westmont’s San Francisco Urban Program in this semester. As part of her school work, she interns with a Catholic Charities program that aids immigrants. She is beginning to make a deeper connection between her life story, and that of other immigrants, to the gospel. “It comforts me that Jesus was seen as an outsider, and gathered around him followers who also were considered outsiders,” said Diana. “Too many Christians at this moment are too scared and confused to see Jesus in the stranger, and realize how lives would be torn apart by these new laws.”
If she is allowed to remain in the U.S., Diana has dreams of going to law school and eventually helping out vulnerable immigrants who cannot afford legal advice.
The Hoeckleys are most frightened to lose their daughter. “I have three daughters, full stop,” says Cheri. “Now the government is trying to take away one of them.”
From time to time, both professors lead discussions on immigration at church adult education classes. They express dismay that even socially-oriented religious communities have not reflected biblically or theologically to any great extent on immigration.
The Hoeckleys are encouraged by the principled position taken by several Christian churches to support the orphan, the widow, and the foreigner regardless the direction that legislation takes. The high-profile stand made by Cardinal Roger Mahony also, they hope, will help Christians evaluate their politics on immigration.
“Our primary obligation as Christians is to embrace the foreigner, the stranger amongst us,” said Chris. “I wish American Christians could see that appeals to ’national interest’ or ’homeland security’ should not lead us to abandon our highest principles.”
There are hundreds of Christian colleges, both Protestant and Catholic, operating in the U.S. Imagine the impact these schools could have on the immigration debate if they would rally around families such as the Hoeckleys who find themselves threatened by this legislation. Christian colleges exist to educate young hearts and minds for Christian service. What better moment for faculty and students at Christian colleges to fulfill their vocation and welcome the stranger.
It is a movement waiting to be born. I pray God stirs some hearts.
This column is reprinted with permission from Sojourner’s Magazine and was published in its weekly e-zine, SojoMail. For free subscriptions go to: www.sojo.net.