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Federal immigration agency turns to El Paso migrants' shelter for help

  • February 16, 2012
    By Joseph J. Kolb

    EL PASO, Texas (CNS) -- Necessity often results in unexpected relationships, and that's one way to describe the connection between U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Annunciation House in El Paso, a shelter for undocumented immigrants.
    Ruben Garcia, the shelter's director, said that as the federal government's El Paso-area detention center swells with immigrants, particularly those seeking asylum, there is a desperate need to house those whom officials have decided not to detain but who still must navigate what can be a daunting bureaucracy until their plight is determined.
    For 34 years, the Catholic-run center has been a respite for immigrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, a scant 10 blocks away. Garcia said the unlikely relationship between Annunciation House and ICE -- and its precursor, the Immigration and Naturalization Service -- has been going on for more than 25 years.
    ICE is part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security; INS was folded into the department several years ago.
    "They (federal agents) used to drop immigrants off a few blocks away and point in our direction for them to walk to," Garcia said. "Our doors are always open and they know it."
    He said on one particularly cold El Paso night, a U.S. Border Patrol agent tapped on the house window and motioned to a van of immigrants who were just picked up and had no place to go.
    "Of course we took them in," Garcia said. "Annunciation House has been privileged to bear witness to the evolution of immigration."
    Through the years, the relationship with ICE has evolved from covert to more overt referrals.
    Garcia points to those who initially immigrated to the United States for economic opportunities but are now fleeing violence in Mexico and are seeking asylum. With the explosion of requests for asylum by Mexican immigrants fleeing the violence spurred by President Felipe Calderon's war on drugs, under way since he took office in 2006.
    That year, there were 2,811 requests from Mexicans for asylum protection. The number jumped to 3,231 requests, paralleling the growth of violence in Mexico. ICE has been unable to keep up with the demand for bed space in its detention center, so the agency turns to Annunciation House.
    Garcia estimates that 50 percent of the shelter's residents, which are split between three houses, are direct referrals from ICE. Stays run from one night as a hospitality stopover to months for those who are enduring the asylum process and have no place else to go, which Garcia said is an increasing trend.
    As the U.S. under the Obama administration increased its border security and exponential deportations, the problem of housing immigrants during the process became a huge challenge.
    "As the Department of Homeland Security goes down this path of increased immigration enforcement, it also has to deal with the logistics of beds," Garcia said.
    Among other immigrants ICE refers to Annunciation House are pregnant women, widows and individuals with medical issues.
    "If ICE has someone in detention, they have to take care of their medical needs but have limited resources so they send them to us," Garcia said.
    But the immigration process for the growing number of people fleeing Mexico's drug wars is arduous, and the court system is so backlogged that any asylum seeker who has arrived recently cannot get an initial hearing until 2015.
    But according to the law, that asylum seeker only has one year to present his or her claim or forfeit the right to claim asylum and he or she must file a petition to withhold deportation.
    "It's a crazy process because the system puts the asylum seeker almost immediately at a disadvantage," Garcia said.
    For the most part, there has been a hands-off attitude by Border Patrol and ICE for places such as Annunciation House where they know residents are undocumented.
    "It's kind of a schizophrenic relationship, but it has worked well so far," Garcia said.
    Garcia said the name of the center was actually inspired by a visit by Blessed Teresa of Kolkata in 1976, when the concept for the shelter was being explored and its organizers were preparing to accommodate the poor and marginalized from Mexico and South America.
    "After we got approval and the donation of the building by (El Paso) Bishop (Sidney) Metzger," Garcia said, "Mother Teresa wrote me a letter which said, 'Now you will be able to announce the good news and bring the people home to Jesus.'"
    He said it was because of Mother Teresa's inspiration to "announce" the good news that the center became Annunciation House.

    PHOTO: Ruben Garcia, director of Annunciation House in El Paso, Texas, speaks April 24 on the subject of asylum for those fleeing the violence directly across the border in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. The couple, heads covered, had four family members murdered in Ci udad Juarez and fled to El Paso, where they seek asylum. (CNS photo/David Agren) (April 29, 2010)