Difference Maker

Ruben Garcia sought his mission in life. He found it helping the 'poorest of the poor'

Ruben Garcia founded Annunciation House in El Paso, Texas, which aids immigrants fleeing violence in Mexico and Central America.

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    Ruben Garcia stands in front of a mural at Annunciation House, a sanctuary for undocumented homeless people and refugees in El Paso, Texas.
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It all started in 1976 when a Roman Catholic youth group of idealistic young adults began to meet in El Paso, Texas, looking for a "greater sense of purpose and mission and substance," says Ruben Garcia, who conducted the meetings. Sometimes 14 people came, sometimes just one.

"Along the way, as we reflected, something from the Scriptures kind of jumped out at us," Mr. Garcia says. "God – in the Old Testament, in the New Testament – identifies first and foremost with whom? With the poor.

"We [decided to] quit our jobs, quit going to school, to live simply and by the grace of God."

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The group began walking the streets of El Paso, looking for the poorest of the poor, without any preconceived notions of what they would do. They helped some people by referring them to social service organizations. But some people said they couldn't be helped because they "didn't have any papers." These were undocumented Mexicans, who at that time weren't eligible for services. So the group decided to focus on helping them.

The Catholic Diocese of El Paso gave them the second floor of the current Annunciation House to use rent-free, if they could maintain it.

February 2013 will mark 35 years since the house was founded and Garcia started his lifework. Today, Annunciation House has several full-time and temporary volunteers, along with summer interns. It operates mostly on private donations, with no real fundraising program.

Over the years, it has provided help to about 125,000 poor immigrants. Guests have been given a place to sleep, a shower, a hot meal, and many other services.

In April 2012, Garcia received the Teacher of Peace Award from Pax Christi USA, a left-leaning Catholic peace organization. Past winners include journalist and peace activist Dorothy Day, actor Martin Sheen, poet and priest Daniel Berrigan, and "Dead Man Walking" author Sister Helen Prejean. Garcia now tours the country and speaks every year at 20 to 25 universities, churches, and other organizations that help immigrants.

He was inspired to seek out the "poorest of the poor" when Mother Teresa visited El Paso. She wrote in a letter to him, "Now you will announce the good news and bring the people home to Jesus" – hence the name Annunciation House.

In the early years, the "poorest" were undocumented Mexican immigrants. In the mid-1980s, Annunciation House began to also concentrate on Central American immigrants fleeing violence in their countries.

Since 2008, the house has placed a renewed focus on refugees from Mexico, especially victims of the calamitous violence in Ciudad Juárez, just across the border from El Paso. For about four years the house has sheltered 80 to 90 of these "guests" at any given time.

Cristina Parker, communications director of the Border Network for Human Rights in El Paso, says that the people of El Paso are "not touched directly by the violence in [Ciudad] Juárez, but we're touched emotionally. Where Annunciation House makes a difference is in bridging the gap in a healing way."

The stories of those staying at the house paint a vivid picture. Two young sisters from Durango, Mexico, speak almost inaudibly, still grieving, as they tell why they fled their home.

In May, one of their brothers was shot and killed, and the Mexican police did nothing. Later another brother was tortured and was afraid to tell anybody who did it as he lay dying.

The sisters suspect that the police were involved in these killings because a police car led a group of vehicles that followed two other brothers on one occasion.

The two women are afraid these killings are related to their having been kidnapped by a group of men before their brothers were killed. They were beaten and sexually abused and were told that they couldn't tell anybody about it or their family would be killed.

"Luxury vehicles" surrounded the cemetery during one brother's funeral, so their mother decided the family should flee to the United States. The two sisters, with their husbands and two children, made it to the US border and requested asylum, presenting the death certificates of their brothers. They were directed to Annunciation House by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents. The rest of the family was not allowed to enter despite two or three tries.

One of the sisters explains what Annunciation House means to them. "We really need their help – food, lawyers, information. In Durango, there wouldn't be help like this," she says. They have been told it might take five or 10 years to be granted asylum.

"It's extremely difficult to get legal representation" if you are a Mexican immigrant, Garcia says. Legal services for Mexican immigrants in his area are so backed up that he's sent five families to other states for help.

On his speaking tours Garcia is outspoken about immigration issues, and he's held vigils for those murdered in Ciudad Juárez. "My focus is on the absurdity of immigration policies," he says. The need for "Annunciation House is a reflection of [failed US] immigration policy."

Regarding the many deportations of Mexicans who have fled violence, he says, "They came into our country, and our policy is not to protect them. We should be saying 'Yes, the US is going to offer you protection.' "

For many years Annunciation House experienced raids by or incidents of harassment from the US border patrol and ICE agents. Garcia estimates it happened roughly once a year.

In 2003, one guest was killed. "They searched him, and he ran," Garcia says. "He held a pipe in the air, and they shot him."

But gradually the immigration enforcers changed their ways and started bringing people whom they had problems caring for – pregnant women, sick people, children – to Annunciation House. The house now receives calls from immigration officials asking if it has room for a few more guests. Today, about 35 percent of the referrals to the house are by way of ICE.

For the last four or five years immigration officials have not bothered Annunciation House, Garcia says.

The house still has no sign outside. When a visitor knocks on the door or a window a volunteer comes to let the person in. Although Garcia's purpose is serious, and the situation of many people at the house is grim, the atmosphere is cheerful. "The girls [volunteers] are nice. They don't pressure you. They don't scold you," says one guest, Socorro Rivas. A large bulletin board in the cluttered kitchen, which doubles as an office, is covered with snapshots of volunteers and guests grinning from ear to ear.

After almost 35 years on the job with almost no vacations, Garcia appears to be a happy man. What he likes best, he says, is "working directly with the people," although as administrator he has many other duties.

"Ruben is one of the most dedicated, committed people I have ever known in my entire life," says Katie Hudak, executive director of Las Americas, a 25-year-old nonprofit legal assistance organization in El Paso.

Now that the murder rate in Ciudad Juárez has slid from eight per day in 2010 to less than two per day in recent months (still a relatively high rate), life there is beginning to get back to normal. Does that mean the thousands who fled to El Paso in the past five years will be going home?

"Everybody is afraid," Garcia says. "They have no way of knowing what the future holds for them [in Mexico]."

He asks a woman who was kidnapped while in Ciudad Juárez when she would go back home. "Not in a million years," she answers.

Garcia doesn't foresee a time when Annunciation House will be obsolete.

"I'm really, really glad I've been a part of it," he says. "I get to do something with depth and purpose and meaning. I get to live my life in a way that is fundamentally about the rights and dignity of the human being."

• For more, visit http://annunciationhouse.org.

Helping Latin America

UniversalGiving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations worldwide. Projects are vetted by UniversalGiving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause.

Below are three opportunities to help Latin Americans, selected by UniversalGiving:

Border Partners unites people from both sides of the US-Mexican border to improve life for those living in poverty along the border. Project: Support the Palomas Community Learning Center.

Seeds of Learning educates North Americans about the rich culture and needs of poor communities in Central America. Project: Help create a sister school program.

Literacy Partners Inc. provides free community-based adult and family literacy programs. Project: Volunteer to assist in teaching English as a second language.

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