Ruben Garcia speaks to a migrant mother as she and her son depart an Annunciation House shelter for the final time, traveling to her U.S.-based sponsor.

Shelter Director Ruben Garcia on How Struggling Nonprofits Carry the Load of the Migrant ‘Crisis’

The director of El Paso's Annunciation House has brought compassion to the front lines of migration for four decades.


A version of this story ran in the July / August 2019 issue.

Ruben Garcia, 70, is a man with the weight of the world — or at least the hemisphere — on his shoulders. The longtime director of Annunciation House, a migrant shelter in El Paso, Garcia has spent the last five years amid the influx of Central American asylum-seekers. Before 2014, Annunciation House consisted of three buildings in El Paso; today, with monthly apprehensions reaching their highest point in a decade, Garcia oversees a network of 25 “hospitality sites,” such as hotels and churches.

As of June, the network was receiving about 700 migrants a day. The sites provide food and shelter for a day or two before sending migrants on their way, usually to live with friends or family. The operation runs on individual donations, a sprawling volunteer network and just two full-time staff. The Observer spoke with Garcia about El Paso, immigration enforcement and American identity.

What was Annunciation House founded to do, and how has that changed over time?

Annunciation House was founded by a small group of [Catholic] young adults as an attempt to find something meaningful. We spent maybe a year and a half discerning how to go about doing that in El Paso in the late 1970s, and what ended up helping was the realization that the God of creation identifies first and foremost with the poor.

Eventually, we had a moment that clarified things, when we encountered someone who was homeless and we sent them to one of the two existing shelters, and they came back and they said, “They won’t help me.” We asked why not. And the answer was, “Porque no tengo papeles.” Of the two shelters that existed, neither accepted undocumented people. So, in 1978 in El Paso, we asked ourselves: What are the groups of people that God would identify with? The answer was, probably, the undocumented.

Describe the typical migrant who passes through Annunciation House. Where do they come from, and what’s the process they go through?

A key moment would be 2014, when the first wave of Central Americans arrived. From that moment, it has redefined what the border looks like. The radical difference is that prior to that, when people would cross over they would try to hide from Border Patrol. Then there was a paradigm shift where people started crossing over looking for Border Patrol to turn themselves in.

So they turn themselves in, they’re apprehended, taken to Border Patrol holding cells and processed. If they don’t pose any risk, they’re strong candidates to be released, basically, on parole. Once that happens, they take them to a staging area where ICE picks them up and takes them to the various hospitality sites that Annunciation House oversees. They come into our site and we give them a place to stay and food, a shower and changes of clothing. We contact their family members or friends, who we ask to buy a bus or plane ticket, and we take them to the airport or the bus station. And they’re on their way.

It sounds like Annunciation House is very efficient at logistics. You’re performing a function that probably the government should be doing, moving hundreds of people every week or day.

Try thousands. But here’s the thing: Whether or not the government should be doing what we’re doing, I would put a huge question mark.

The question to ask Border Patrol is: Why don’t you detain people? They’re going to say, “We can’t, we [don’t have adequate] detention facilities.” So then what you ask is: Then why don’t you become social workers, and you take care of their social needs? And they say, “I’m sorry, we’re law enforcement. We don’t do that, so we will release them to the street.” And you absolutely better understand they will release them to the street.

Do you think city and county governments should step up to provide for these people? Does the city of El Paso help you?

El Paso is behind. I’m really disappointed in their response. One of our biggest needs is that I want the city to help by providing transportation from the hospitality sites to the bus station, the airport. The second is to look at finding a facility that can be prepared to be a hospitality site so when the numbers exceed the capacity of the network, it activates and receives the additional people on standby. Those are our two specific asks, and up to now I can’t get to first base.

As far as local government is concerned, the very best of government steps forward and responds to the needs of the human beings that are right here, right now. El Paso is a binational city, a border city — billions and billions of dollars from Mexico [come] into the United States right here. We talk about the economic relationship and how important that relationship is to the economy. Well, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t say this is part of our bread and butter, and then [step aside] when you have an issue like the refugees right now. I believe that the city of El Paso has a real responsibility to say this comes with being a border city. [In an email, El Paso Fire Chief Mario D’Agostino said the city has provided some transportation, personnel and food. He added that the city has approved funding for a volunteer coordinator and is looking into Garcia’s additional requests.]

What’s something you wish more people understood about the border?

I am very concerned with how we are in the process of losing our soul. We say some incredible things about who we are as a country. What we say has been historically so powerful that countries across the world have tried to model themselves on it and, more and more, people no longer want to do that. What I want people to know and to think about is what’s happening to us when these refugees arrive at our border. Are they inconvenient? Absolutely. Is it a lot of work? Absolutely. But historically, because of how we define ourselves, our political leaders have appealed to the people of the country and said, “We do the things that are inconvenient, that are hard, because that’s how we uphold our identity.” And we’re losing that.

Is there a crisis at the Texas-Mexico border, and if so, what kind of crisis is it?

It is a moral crisis; it is a crisis of identity. Look, if we stopped making life so unbearable for asylum-seekers, for the poor arriving at our shores — we are spending immense resources to literally make their lives as miserable as possible — if we focused on people’s right to arrive, to present before immigration judges and have their stories heard, to access attorneys, and we focused on how to handle the numbers and allow organizations like Sister Norma in McAllen and Annunciation House in El Paso to do the work of hospitality, then we would handle it.

That does not take away from the necessity to look at the conditions people are fleeing in these countries. And to recognize the relationship to drug consumption in the U.S., the transfer of billions of dollars of drug money to these countries, which then is used by organized crime to bribe police officers, the military, buy heavy weaponry, bribe the judges, the politicians. I say to people, I’ll make you a deal: I will help you build a 100-foot wall from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean and, in return, you stop the consumption of drugs in the U.S. But until you do that, open the border.

Originally, you were drawn to this work to serve the poor. What keeps you going now?

One of the best things is that what drew me 41-plus years ago is still completely the work of Annunciation House. What led me to this, to put myself in the midst of the poor, it is still that, and that’s what keeps me here.

What’s your retirement plan look like?

[Laughs] Retirement plans don’t exist with Annunciation House.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.