I’ve always believed in abiding by the rules unless there’s a good reason to break them. Like most people, I’m more likely to break rules when the challenge to follow them takes on a human face.
Last year, I made the expensive decision to cut down some huge trees that lined our long driveway. I was uneasy, but they were Eucalyptus trees, shallow rooted and messy, an invasive species.
The tree cutters in our Northern California town were immigrants from Central America. Day after day, I watched them scale the heights to start the process by topping the trees. The strength, valor, and raw energy of these men moved me. One afternoon the owner of the business told me that locals were no longer interested in this kind of work. It was too hard, too dangerous.
Towards the end of the job, I found myself watching one particular young man. His energy and work ethic seemed to inspire the others. One day he saw me watching and smiled. And somehow, just like that, he soon became someone I depended on to help me with managing a property of 15 acres that included a hodgepodge of animals.
Rudy had lived in the U.S. for two years. He was 21. Back home in Guatemala, he had a wife, and a son he’d never seen.
A tireless worker there was, however, a problem: Rudy didn’t have papers. He had come to the US illegally at great risk, and great expense. Technically, it wasn’t right to hire him. By the time I understood that, he was more than the guy who did the work of two men. He was the quiet and steady presence that I relied on. Someone I cared about. So, I broke the rules. I kept him on and paid him – in cash.
Several months later, Rudy told me that his younger brother, Billy, had arrived from Guatemala to join him. I never met Billy except for one fleeting glimpse in Rudy’s truck in the driveway, just two days before he disappeared.
Rudy hesitantly came to me and said that Billy was walking in their neighborhood late at night when a group of Latino men ran by shouting about police and a botched robbery at the 7-Eleven. Billy, frightened and confused, ran too. He was caught, questioned and found innocent. They put him in jail, anyway. No papers.
The next week, Rudy told me Billy had been moved to a “holding cell” in Los Angeles. Their mother was frantic. Over the following weeks, Rudy became increasingly quiet. When I asked about his brother, he told me Billy had a clean record, so the judge had not deported him outright. Instead he set bail. I brushed it off. This didn’t have much to do with me. I was helping Rudy. That was enough.
One day I invited Rudy for lunch. His English had improved, but it still took him a long time to tell the full story. By then Billy had been in jail for over six months, his bail set for an impossible $8,000. Rudy was working long hours to accumulate that money but was nowhere near such an unreachable goal.
I looked at Rudy, a principled man whose whole life was about helping his family. His dream was to build his own house and start his own auto repair business in Guatemala. He sent almost all the sweat money home while he slept on the floor in a tiny apartment with 12 other young men doing the same thing. He was killing himself to accumulate enough money to join his wife and son and live a decent life in his own country.
Then I realized why I cared so much about Rudy–his loyalty to his family, his willingness to sacrifice for them, but most of all, his integrity. What would I have done if it was my brother?
“Wait a minute,” I said. “What happens if someone posts bail?” Rudy said the money would be returned eventually if Billy showed up for his hearings. A friend who was an immigration lawyer assured me this was true. In fact, the money would even be returned with interest. I thought about my husband who had recently died after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s. He had worked so hard for most of our marriage before becoming sick. We both had. What would he do?
$8,000. I said, “Okay.”
My crash course in immigration law began. Billy’s volunteer lawyer in Los Angeles had the paperwork and would tell me what I needed to do to get Billy out. He faxed me the papers and told me to go to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) with a certified check for $8,000, and Billy would be released.
The next day, I made the two-hour drive to the INS office in San Francisco. I arrived early and stood in front of a cashier’s window, looking into an empty room, for 45 minutes. Finally, a clerk appeared. I showed him Billy’s paperwork and gave him the check. He frowned and said, “We can’t use this. A check has to be written out to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.”
I walked two blocks to the closest bank to get another certified check. They said they would authorize a certified check if I had an account. I didn’t. As I began filling out the paperwork to open a checking account a clerk walked over. “New accounts can’t be used for a week.”
I got back in the car and made the two-hour trip back home to my bank. I tore up the first check and got another. Driving back to San Francisco I thought, I am almost 70 years old, why am I doing this? It was now early afternoon and there was a long line at the INS window. I tried to tune out the pathos, as I heard pleas like, “I’m looking for my son” and “we don’t know where our uncle is.”
My turn came and a different clerk told me they needed to fax the paperwork to the detention center in Los Angeles and await clearance before she could take the check. They were short staffed, so it might take a while. It was now 2 in the afternoon. I asked, “When do you close?”
“What if the paperwork doesn’t come before then?”
“You come back tomorrow.”
“I’ve been here all day. It’s a two-hour drive to my home. It’s a four-hour round trip.”
I waited instead. At the last minute, the paperwork arrived and my check was taken. Two hours later, Billy boarded a bus.
A few days later Rudy arrived for work. On the far side of the meadow, I could see another young man in the truck. Billy jumped out and ran across the field wrapping me in a giant hug. There were tears, his and mine too. The former vague reality of a stranger trapped in an unjust nightmare now had a human face. Billy let go and stood before me, shaking, smiling. A life had been changed, even saved. Maybe in some strange way, mine, too. There is a saying, “a person never stands taller than when on bended knee to lift up someone else.”
Post Script: The system is broken. Billy was released in November of 2012. His first court hearing was scheduled for three months later. It was cancelled several times and finally moved to September of 2014. The two of us went to court and waited for four hours watching dozens of young men in similar circumstances. As Billy, like most of them, had no lawyer, his next hearing was set for November 29, 2019. My money is safe, as is Billy from deportation, while he continues to work as a dishwasher and other jobs that Americans no longer are willing to do.
About Linda Mornell
Linda Mornell (www.lindamornell.com) is founder of Summer Search, a nonprofit organization that provides disadvantaged young people with challenging summer opportunities and life changing mentoring. She is also author of the book “Forever Changed.”