The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ruben Garcia has sheltered migrants in El Paso for over four decades. With a crush at the border, he now needs a warehouse.

Ruben Garcia, director of Annunciation House, greets volunteers making dinner at Casa Oscar Romero in El Paso on Thursday. Annunciation House provides shelter to migrants who have just crossed the border into the United States and helps arrange travel to their destinations. He saw his busiest day ever — with more than 800 migrants — last week. (Sergio Flores/For The Washington Post)

EL PASO — The empty warehouse was about the size of a Costco, 125,000 square feet. Ruben Garcia didn’t love the location, but time was short and he needed to sign a lease.

“We need all the chain-link fences removed,” Garcia told his legal adviser, Jerome Wesevich, last week as they toured cavernous halls and loading bays where hundreds of Central American families would sleep on Red Cross cots. Garcia, 70, the founder and executive director of Annunciation House , an El Paso nonprofit organization that has sheltered migrants for more than 40 years, did not want anything resembling a detention cell.

“We need to try to make this a hospitable place,” he said.

But the biggest challenge would be keeping pace.

Garcia’s shelters are full of migrants who the U.S. government has released from custody into this border city. And Border Patrol holding cells are overflowing, leading last week to some detained families sleeping on the ground beneath an El Paso bridge surrounded by chain-link fencing and razor wire. In coming days, U.S. Customs and Border Protection plans to release thousands more Central Americans it has no room for — and Garcia will try to help as many of them as he can.

U.S. has hit ‘breaking point’ at border amid immigration surge, Customs and Border Protection chief says

Garcia has seen the largest migration wave in more than a decade building for months, the daily total of parents and children that the U.S. government sends his way rising from a few dozen a year ago to several hundred. On Wednesday, he took in 825 migrants, his busiest day ever. 

The U.S. government is looking at vacant warehouses here, too, after Congress and the White House agreed on a border security deal in February providing $192 million for a new child-appropriate migrant processing center in El Paso.

Garcia relies entirely on private donations, but the fact that he and the government are both warehouse shopping here underscores the pivotal, quasi-official role that nonprofit organizations and faith-based groups along the border have taken on in the new era of mass unauthorized migration.

The loose partnership between U.S. law enforcement agencies and groups such as Garcia’s exemplifies the fact that U.S. policy wasn’t designed to handle such an influx of asylum-seeking families, who are typically allowed to stay in the country as they seek court approval of their claims. It also shows that U.S. officials understand that hundreds of thousands of people will need help once they arrive and are released, but that there is no mechanism within the government to handle it.

After completing the journey from Central America to the U.S. border, often in the hands of smugglers, and then spending days in U.S. detention, migrant families are released to church groups and charity organizations such as Annunciation House. The groups provide beds and meals and make the bus or plane reservations migrants need to complete the last part of the journey to U.S. cities and towns, where many will live for months or years.

“I see my role as simply being there for one of the most vulnerable groups of people on the planet,” said Garcia, who was raised attending Jesuit schools in El Paso and, as a young man, found his inspiration in Mother Teresa.

“That’s what we’ve been doing all these years, and we have to continue to do that,” he said. 

In South Texas, the biggest corridor for illegal crossings, the director of Catholic Charities of Rio Grande Valley, Sister Norma Pimentel, plays a similar role to Garcia’s. In Arizona, the lack of such an institution appears to be worsening the humanitarian crisis there and inflaming tensions, as residents react angrily when U.S. officials allow mass discharges onto city streets. 

President Trump has threatened to close the southern border unless Mexico stops migrants from coming into the U.S. (Video: Luis Velarde/The Washington Post, Photo: Sergio Flores/The Washington Post)

“People in Phoenix, Yuma, and throughout Arizona are facing massive financial, public-safety, and humanitarian costs from an immigration crisis that they had no part in creating,” Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) wrote to the Department of Homeland Security last week, urging closer coordination with nonprofit groups and churches there to prepare them to receive families. “We need to do better to reduce the burden imposed on them.”

In addition to the sheer volume of new arrivals, driving the need for help is a sea change in the way migrants are crossing the border. In the past, smugglers typically placed adult migrants in stash houses along each side of the border before delivering them to their destinations in the U.S. interior for a fee. But the families now arriving in record numbers are surrendering to U.S. agents to seek asylum. 

Migrants typically are released after a few days in custody, with no money, nowhere to stay and little idea of how to reach their destinations across the United States.

Garcia keeps them off the streets. Twice a day, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) sends him a text message telling him how many migrants the agency is preparing to release. That number has soared during the past two months.

Garcia said Annunciation House has received 50,000 migrants from the government since October. He has spent $1 million at four budget motels to house them. They are full now, as are Annunciation House’s own shelters and those of the two dozen affiliated churches working with Garcia.

And the need keeps growing. In March, the United States detained nearly 100,000 people along the border, and holding cells are so crowded that the Border Patrol last week started releasing migrant families directly — without transferring them to ICE — a change that will channel even more people into Annunciation House’s maxed-out shelters.

By housing migrants in a warehouse leased for $30,000 a month, Garcia could boost capacity and cut costs. “I’m afraid we will be getting 1,000 a day or more,” he said.

Garcia received a group of families discharged directly by the Border Patrol over the weekend who lacked the government documents they would need to travel beyond El Paso. His bed shortage was compounded by administrative disarray.

“They are not prepared for this,” Garcia said of the Border Patrol. “I wish they would just leave it to ICE.”

Garcia said Monday that he has spoken to ICE about the possibility of the agency driving more families to Albuquerque, as well as cities as far away as Denver and Dallas, where churches and shelters have space for them. But he said he wasn’t sure the government would accept the proposal.

'Yes . . . I'll take them'

Garcia’s phone was ringing. He silenced it. Wesevich, the attorney, had concerns about the warehouse.

He brought Garcia into a conference room at his Legal Aid office. “Do you have room for some cots in here?” Garcia said, not really joking.

The warehouse owners were open to a short-term lease, and that was key because migration patterns are unpredictable. But Wesevich began ticking off problems.

“Just to clean this place would be a monumental task,” Wesevich said. The previous tenant, an electric utility, had moved out years earlier. “We need to ask about the roof and the HVAC system. The AC needs to be turned on. It’s going to get hotter in the next few months. And we need to have a whole conversation about security.” 

Would the plumbing system be able to cope? Garcia would need a permit from the Fire Department and a zoning exception. Wesevich wanted to talk about money, too. Donations had been keeping pace earlier in the year, but now the number of migrants was rising and contributions were not.  

Garcia’s phone was ringing again. It was the Border Patrol. He picked up. “Yes,” he said to the agent. “I’ll take them.”

Annunciation House had started turning away adults who arrive without children to guarantee beds for all the families being discharged. The Border Patrol has been holding more than 3,000 migrants in custody in the El Paso area — including those who were held beneath an overpass. There are thousands more waiting across the border in Juarez. If residents start seeing hundreds of parents with children on the streets with nowhere to go, El Paso will look to Garcia, too.

His phone lit up again. It was ICE, asking him to take 75 more. He agreed, hung up and took a deep breath.

“I wish God would make some of this a little easier,” he said.

Solving problems

Garcia spends his days zooming around El Paso in a white Toyota pickup with a cracked windshield, his hands juggling his phone, the steering wheel and a foam Whataburger cup he has repurposed as a mobile coffee mug. It’s tall enough that nothing spills out when he hits bumps or veers around potholes.

The Border Patrol was calling again. They had a family of Guatemalans whose 1-year-old had been hospitalized with a respiratory infection. Could he take them? An agent from another station called about a man with a pacemaker. Where should he be dropped off? Reporters were calling, too. Congressional aides. Supporters in other cities, asking what they could do. 

An Annunciation House volunteer called from one of the hotels where Garcia has booked all the rooms. Migrants needed dinner. Garcia steered toward a Church’s Chicken franchise where the managers are nimble enough to handle his monster orders. “They work with me,” he said. “They know how to solve problems.” 

Garcia walked up to the counter and asked for 160 chicken dinners, paying $551. He’d be back for the food in an hour.

Garcia doesn’t have an assistant, which seems terribly inefficient until one realizes he isn’t running a business, or even a conventional charity. For him, the pressure and the responsibilities are the point. This is his calling. He is serving the poor. The tasks and the text messages and the errands are the spiritual practice, not something to be handed off or delegated.

Garcia founded Annunciation House in 1978 as a young man, then absorbed waves of Central American refuges fleeing civil wars. He raised six children from El Salvador — all siblings — after their parents were killed in the conflict.

The Border Patrol would periodically raid Annunciation House, located near downtown a few blocks from the border, hunting migrants who crossed illegally. Agents shot and killed a ­19-year-old right outside its doors in 2003, “a low point” for Garcia.

His relationship with ICE and the Border Patrol is changing now, too. “Mr. Garcia, good afternoon,” they say when they call. 

“I’ve noted an increase in their acknowledgment that these are human beings, and a greater desire to treat them as human beings,” he said.

Garcia sees the Central Americans coming now as refugees, too, no different from those who fled the violence and chaos in the 1980s. The other day, he took in a middle-class family who fled gang threats in Honduras.

“I think people don’t understand what it’s like to lose everything,” Garcia said. “How could you not want to help them?” 

Garcia’s advocacy work and public criticism of President Trump’s border security proposals have led some to view him as a left-wing activist. But Garcia was stirred decades ago by Mother Teresa of Calcutta, the founder of Missionaries of Charity, whom he brought to El Paso in 1976. He draws inspiration today from Pope Francis. 

“There’s no faith tradition that isn’t categorical about the commitment to the stranger, the neglected, the rejected,” he said.

What is different now, Garcia says, is the country itself — harder, angrier, less welcoming. “I think 9/11 changed the psyche of the American people,” he said. “We have formed so many biases and fears.”

His phone is ringing again. 

Garcia stops at a small evangelical church, where a married couple has just finished serving lunch to families seated under tents in the parking lot. Ruben tells them that the Border Patrol will soon begin releasing hundreds of migrants in El Paso in addition to the 600 or so ICE discharges each day.

“I want to put everyone on notice that this is going to start happening,” Garcia told them. “What will we do with people we encounter on the street? I don’t have an answer for that.”

“We don’t care about the numbers,” the church’s pastor, Oswaldo Velasquez, told him, offering to take in several dozen more. “We feel so much for these people.”

'No one gets off the hook'

The closer Garcia works with the government and the more families he accepts, the more Annunciation House becomes an integral part of the migration wave, helping families but also handling something that smugglers previously did. Garcia doesn’t view it that way.

“I think this is something that really speaks to all of us,” he said. “No one gets off the hook, whether a person of faith or an agnostic. I believe all of us have to wrestle with the question of what to do with the gift given to me, that I can occupy this place on the planet.”

He parks his truck outside a church shelter and starts answering the text messages that piled up while he was driving. Calls are coming in, too, invading the screen. A volunteer walks up to the truck and knocks on his window, then hands him three envelopes with “donation” handwritten on the outside.

One was especially thick but jingling with coins, which brought a wisecrack from a reporter who had been asking Garcia about Annunciation House’s biggest donors while running errands with him.

Garcia got out of the truck and started walking.

“I’ll tell you a story about a donor,” he said, stopping in the middle of the parking lot, silencing his phone again.

A few years after he opened Annunciation House, he said, a destitute mother from Mexico with two sick children showed up one day at his door. She collapsed on the floor outside his office. He took the family in.

A few days later, when Garcia got a call from a contact looking for someone to clean her house, he asked the mother whether she wanted the job. When she returned at the end of the day, she showed him the money she’d earned: $15.

“She gave me $10 and told me to save it for her,” Garcia said. “Then she gave me the five and told me to give it to someone who might need it more, who was even poorer than she was.”

“That,” Garcia said, “was one of the biggest donations we’ve ever received.”

Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.