Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
EL PASO – As the national outcry over the policy of separating parents and children at the border reached a fever pitch, Ruben Garcia sat in a tiny, cluttered office at Annunciation House and quietly reassured a distraught mother from Guatemala that he would find her little girl.
“I promise you, we will get her back,” Garcia, director of Annunciation House, told her.
The woman said the last time she saw her 4-year-old was June 15, and she had no idea how to find her.
Garcia apologized on behalf of a nation that had taken her child.
When she burst into tears, he reached into his back pocket and handed the mother a paper towel from a stash he started carrying in recent days as he comforts dozens of tearful parents desperate to find their children. He tried tissue paper, but it was too fragile and shredded easily as Garcia is constantly on the move and keeps a grueling schedule working to reunite families.
“I just think that that’s what God wants me to do,” Garcia said.
At a time of uncertainty, confusion and grief, he has emerged as a beacon of light for many families whose lives have been affected by the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy, which separated more than 2,300 children from their parents, beginning in May.
The president’s executive order June 20 ended separations created when immigrant parents facing criminal prosecution were locked up and their kids were sent to far-flung shelters across the country.
But the painstaking work by immigrant rights advocates and human rights organizations to reunite families has just begun. Annunciation House is working to help 32 parents who made up the first large group released after the federal government withdrew criminal charges.
As of Friday, all but one parent were been able to locate their children at shelters throughout the country. Many parents have now spoken to their kids but had not been reunited yet.
For Garcia, the work to reunite families is part of his mission – a mission that began in 1978 when he was working as the youth and young adult director for the Diocese in El Paso and convinced the bishop to loan him space in a house owned by the diocese. He and four friends involved in the youth ministry were looking to “place ourselves among the poor,” Garcia said.
In the 40 years since Annunciation House opened its doors, the organization added a second house, Casa Vides, and has provided temporary shelter and assistance to tens of thousands of migrants and refugees arriving along the stretch of border that includes southern New Mexico and West Texas.
“I have great respect for what Ruben does in terms of maintaining a welcoming spirt,” said the Rev. Tom Smith, director of Holy Cross Retreat Center in Las Cruces. “He’s not doing this for a political issue, but he’s doing it because he believes it’s right.”
Holy Cross has started taking in some families when Annunciation House is full.
Garcia’s decades of work have earned him respect both regionally and on a national level.
“Ruben is a fierce advocate,” said Linda Rivas, director of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, an organization that provides legal assistance to immigrants and refugees co-founded by Garcia in 1987. “We see him as a fighter and a true hero on the ground.”
That fight includes helping a Brazilian mother staying at Annunciation House who is a plaintiff in the class-action lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of parents separated from their children.
On Monday, a federal judge hearing the case in San Diego ordered the Trump administration to reunite children taken at the border with their parents and gave federal authorities two weeks for children 5 and under and four weeks for older kids.
“That’s fantastic,” Garcia said of the ruling. “The first thing I did was I got a bunch of candles and I put them before a statute of Our Lady of Guadalupe to pray that they don’t appeal the decision, that the Justice Department doesn’t go to an appeals court to ask for a stay on the decision.”
When the group of 32 parents was released from detention, Garcia greeted the Border Patrol bus dropping them off Sunday at Annunciation House.
Some have remained at Annunciation House while most have departed for cities where they have relatives.
An additional seven mothers who are separated from their children arrived at the shelter Wednesday seeking help.
Garcia has built a relationship with the Border Patrol in the region based on mutual respect despite being an outspoken critic of immigration policies over the years.The Border Patrol often turns to Annunciation House to shelter migrants who have nowhere else to go when they are released with ankle monitors.
The migrants who have stayed at Annunciation House over the years have fled war in Central America, drug cartel violence in Mexico and violent gangs in Central America. They’re seeking a safe haven and increasingly asylum.
“The people that are leaving now are fleeing what is the classic, low-intensity warfare,” Garcia said. He said their right to file an asylum claim when they arrive at the border and have a judge review their case is protected by U.S. law.
He says he is not advocating for open borders, just respect for the law for those who arrive at legal ports of entry to file asylum claims. In recent weeks, he has escorted a few families seeking asylum through ports of entry because U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers have been turning people away.
A Customs spokesman said people are not denied the right to claim asylum, but rather asked to come back because facilities do not have the space to process hundreds of Central Americans seeking asylum.
“We’re walking up the bridge, and all that I can think of is … they’re the poorest of the poor, and they come to the wealthiest, most powerful country in the world, and look at what we’re making them do,” Garcia said.
With Garcia at their side, some families have been able to reach immigration checkpoints to file their asylum claims while others still wait near border crossings in Mexico for the opportunity.
“We have no idea what hope means,” he said. The people who are poor will teach us what it means to hope.”