She is an immigrant. But aside from her struggle to speak English, she is like most of her neighbors in an upscale neighborhood in a sunny U.S. city.
She is a member of an extended family of well-educated professionals who attend Mass regularly and take part in their children’s school activities. Leaving her country was as unimaginable to her just a few years ago as it is to any of us today.
That was before she happened to drive up in front of the family corporation’s business office just as her mother was fighting off a large male hijacker attempting to take her hostage.
Her mother’s resulting knife wounds required surgery. While their security guard called an ambulance, she followed the hijacked truck, giving police details of its location.
She noticed she was being followed by two men in a rental car just as her husband’s phone call jerked her attention to the danger that she was in.
The family cooperated with the local police, and their information led to the arrest of a well-organized gang of criminals. They thought that would be the end of it.
Then the harassing phone calls began. Stalkers began to appear at the family’s homes, businesses and children’s schools. They learned that the local police could not be trusted.
But the extended family lived in a good part of town, didn’t go out at night, obeyed the law and expected to live in peace. “Be not afraid,” said the Lord. They took the command seriously.
Their hope for peace was soon shattered by a bold, daytime armed robbery of their corporate office. A gang of heavily armed men cleaned out the safe, stole products and ransacked files, before driving off with three trucks and one of her brothers as hostage.
The ransom demand came quickly. It exactly matched the amount and timing of a regular payment for a government contract.
No member of the family could safely return home. While they hid with friends who supplied money, food, clothing and supplies, they awaited the outcome of the kidnapping.
The federal police were called in to investigate. Less than 24 hours later, the investigating team found her brother and five other hostages, including a young mother and infant child. Everyone would have been killed when the ransom was paid.
Without ever returning to their homes, the entire family left the country the same evening for safe haven in the United States.
After two years in hiding from the cartel at home and immigration officers in the United States, the extended family decided it was safe enough for her family to return to their homeland to begin the legal immigration process.
They flew into their home city and drove straight to the American consulate to apply for new visas, handing over their visas and passports. It was a 10-day process.
Leaving the consulate, they went to their former place of business to retrieve personal papers and business documents, then rushed to their former home.
They were greeted warmly by neighbors. One child went to visit a near-by friend. The others wanted to relax and enjoy being home before gathering their treasures and mementos, packing their clothes and preparing to leave home permanently.
Within an hour, the phone rang. It was another brother, calling urgently from the United States. He told them to leave immediately. He had just received a threat on their lives.
Again, they went into hiding with their Catholic church friends who were willing to risk giving them shelter for nine more anxious days and nights. Finally, she and her children were given student visas so she could attend college in the United States and take her children with her.
Her husband and her mother were refused documents to accompany her and the children, even though specific threats were made against both her mother and her husband.
I met her when she and her college-age son began coming to the university writing center where I worked as a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship missionary, adjunct faculty member and volunteer.
It was clear that she was a quick learner and careful thinker, articulate and well-read in her native language. Like so many adults learning a new language, however, giving expression to complex thoughts and concepts is extraordinarily difficult when using a beginner’s vocabulary. She struggled to shape her thoughts and experiences into academically appropriate English.
The first assignment she brought to me was for a biblical ethics class. Her title was, “Under False Pretense.”
The paper concerns foreign professionals and businesspeople obtaining student visas for entry into the United States for reasons other than education and with every intention to stay beyond their visas, if necessary.
Although her family still had business interests in her home country and relatives frequently traveled back and forth for business purposes, her intention was to stay in this country, whatever that might mean.
This intelligent, thoughtful and ethically sensitive woman was a professional in her former life, with the expectations, respect and position that her status had earned for her. Now, she was enduring disrespect, humiliation and hate language directed at immigrants, refugees and just about anyone who speaks broken English.
She was troubled by her dilemma of entering this country under a false pretense. Nevertheless, she was determined to overstay, if she must, to protect the lives of her children and her own life.
I have written this article with her permission, but I have intentionally avoided names, locations and time frames.
Her story is not unusual. We tend to think of immigrants as not like us. “They must be poor. They must be ignorant. They must have no family resources or connections,” we think to ourselves.
Lest you think this story is unusual, I can tell you from experience it is not.
Among the small group of students, faculty and staff with whom I worked, there was another family member kidnapped for ransom. Fortunately, that individual was released when the ransom was paid.
In the years since I retired from CBF, I have often thought of this woman. Both she and her son earned their degrees – she for the third time and in a foreign language. Her son went on to graduate school.
As I consider their story, it raises ethical questions for me and, I believe, for all of us who aspire to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God.
So, I ask you what I ask myself: Where would you go if your life were threatened and your children stalked?
Would you dare to take someone into your home who is hiding from criminal gangs or corrupt police? Is it ethical to shelter someone whom it is illegal to shelter? What questions should we be asking?