Refuge Along the Road
By Amy Durkee
If you live in the United States, chances are your life will intersect at least once today with that of a Latin American immigrant. Perhaps you'll enjoy a meal out at a restaurant where your dishes will be washed by a young man from Colombia. Perhaps you'll drop by your local discount store for a few items, skimming over floors cleaned by a Mexican work crew. Maybe you'll enjoy vegetables picked by migrants or stay in a hotel room serviced by a Guatemalan maid.
Whether you live in Tucson, Ariz., Gary, Ind., or a small farming community in upstate New York, there are strangers in your midst, living eight to a small apartment, or in a leaky shack on a farm down the road, or packed into a cheap motel room. By U.S. standards, their wages are meager and their living conditions atrocious, yet these people seem grateful for what they have.
With an estimated 8 to 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States, it's surprising how easy it is for us to avoid interacting with them. We don't often think about these people working quietly behind the scenes, but our relationship with them is unavoidable. And it is a relationship that Ruben Garcia is determined to make us acknowledge.
Garcia is co-founder and director of Annunciation House, a ministry to people in migration along the U.S.-Mexican border. Annunciation House was born in El Paso, Tex., 26 years ago, when Garcia and four others sensed a call to work with the poor in their midst.
"We believed that God is a God of aliens, the poor, and the marginalized," he recalls. "It seemed clear to us that God wanted us to be in relationship with the least among us and that we needed to place ourselves among the poor and see where they'd take us."
After a year-long process of discernment, the group set their sights on a dilapidated old building owned by the diocese of El Paso. Garcia, 29 at the time, went to the bishop to ask for the space. "In retrospect," Garcia says, smiling faintly, "it seems incredible that you could go into a bishop's office and ask for this, to say, 'We can't really tell you what it's about, but we want this building with no strings attached.'" Instead of laughing the young idealist out of his office, the bishop agreed.
The five young adults moved into the neglected building in the winter of 1978. With neither financial nor organizational backing, they simply went out to find the poor. Without any resources, they figured their role would be to refer people to agencies and others who could help them. "Only if a person fell through the cracks would we meet their needs ourselves," says Garcia of their original intent.
It wasn't long, however, before they discovered that no shelters or social service agencies would help the undocumented. As so-called "illegals," they were ineligible for assistance. Garcia and his friends had found the people who "fell through the cracks"–and there were thousands of them. "We began to offer hospitality, not sure where it would take us," he says, "but it eventually went on to define us."
Meeting real needs
God took the radical commitment of a handful of young people to create a one-of-a-kind ministry of hospitality, solidarity, accompaniment, and advocacy. Since 1978, the organization has expanded from the original building to include two other houses of hospitality, a house for administrative offices and volunteer respite, and a community building located in a squatter settlement outside the Mexican city of Juarez. Situated at the largest border crossing point in the United States, the Annunciation House ministry has helped over 75,000 men, women, and children from approximately 35 countries to gain footing before continuing on their journeys.
Each of the now four houses that make up the ministry has its specialty. Annunciation House continues to serve as a house of hospitality for refugees and the undocumented. Casa Vides, also in El Paso, caters to guests who are involved in a legal process, such as those seeking asylum, as well as to other guests whose situations require a longer stay. Casa Emaus is located in a squatters' neighborhood and provides support and space for community-building efforts. Directly across the border, in the city of Juarez, Casa de la Peregrina serves primarily women and children who have come to the city in hopes of finding work. On any given night, the ministry may host as many as 130 people among the three houses.
Volunteers provide food and clothing, refer people for healthcare and legal services, and assist guests in locating friends and family. Garcia explains, "We give them the opportunity to catch their breath, to have the space to reflect on their next steps."
Annunciation House was founded on the belief that to be with the poor necessitates experiencing life as they do; it means living with nothing to rely on but God.
Consequently, volunteers were asked to live in poverty along with the guests, and the group decided that they would neither seek nor accept any type of permanent funding.
As the organization has grown, so, too, has the vision. A ministry of this size begs for continuity in leadership and workers. In order to gain much-needed stability in staff, the organization now offers incentives to volunteers who stay more than one year: health insurance, small stipends, and private living quarters.
A larger ministry also requires a larger budget. Until recently, the Annunciation House concept of fundraising was simply to send prayer letters to current supporters and to apply for an occasional grant. To date, the organization has survived primarily on in-kind gifts such as towels, toiletries, and food, and on the services of work camps. Current needs are outpacing that system, however, leading the organization to become more involved in fundraising. They are now seeking to raise awareness of the ministry's work, but they still hold to their original philosophy: Funds must come with no strings attached.
According to board member and former volunteer Michael Brennan, Garcia still contends that "he'd rather receive $20 checks from a thousand grandmothers than a $20,000 gift from a foundation." For Garcia, it's more about connecting people than completing a project.
Garcia's heart is for people in migration. He is quick to invoke such Scriptures as: "You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt" (Exod. 22:21); "The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God" (Lev. 19:34); and "Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice" (Deut. 27:19).
Why people migrate
The news is littered with tragic stories from our southern border. People are baking to death in the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico; they are preyed upon by human traffickers, shot by border patrol agents, or run down by railroad cars. Because it is hard for us to imagine a situation so severe that it would drive us to risk our lives to escape it, it is easy for us to judge them as crazy or foolish for taking such risks to get to the United States.
Garcia wants us to understand that "people in migration are in some way forced to do something they don't want to do. That force might be civil war or excruciating poverty or violence. They almost always leave their homes in destitution. They feel they have no other options."
Some, like those who have worked in foreign-owned factories in Mexico, come to escape economic violence. Desperate for business, Mexican cities offer unrealistic incentives to companies. Factories coming into Mexico provide jobs, but because they are exempt from paying taxes, no municipal funds are available to support the infrastructure that the factory necessitates. And workers earning U.S.$40 to $50 per week cannot be fully independent. The result is poverty: squatter settlements and slums lacking electricity, proper waste management systems, clean water, health care, child care, and basic educational opportunities. People who had come to the city hoping to support their families soon realize that it is just not possible. They often see no choice but to continue north in hopes of making it in the United States or Canada.
But as Garcia explains, people migrate for more than just economic reasons. He'll tell you of a Mexican woman whose husband was involved in narcotrafficking. When she realized what he was doing and went to her local police station for help, they told her to leave the country immediately and seek asylum. Garcia may speak of his six adopted children who fled El Salvador after their parents were brutally murdered for union involvement. He'll recount for you the stories of young men who worked in the death squads in El Salvador and Guatemala; sucked in as a way to feed their starving families, they finally realized they were disposable pawns in a war on their own people and escaped to the United States in hopes of asylum. He'll tell you about a Mexican family who crossed the border seeking medical care for their 9-year-old daughter's cancer; having spent their entire fortune, they arrived at Annunciation House to beg for the child's life.
Our lives are interlinked
Garcia is not asking for sympathy for the migrating poor. "This isn't about charity," he insists. "We need these people as much as they need us." Those suffering from political or economic violence need a safe place to live and a means to feed their families, and we need cheap labor to maintain our lifestyle. What U.S. citizen will work for the low wages of a migrant worker? Who will we find to work our menial jobs if not the immigrants?
"It's so easy not to let these people enter into our consciousness," Garcia concedes, "but the reality is that our lives are intertwined. They bear totally unfair burdens because of this relationship. Almost all who cross do so because of a relationship with us, but we refuse to acknowledge and participate in this relationship. We say, 'As long as you stay in your country and work for us at 50 cents an hour, you're acceptable, but if you want to come here and earn enough to support yourself and your family, we'll make war on you.'"
Garcia is doing more than simply calling us to make good on our part of a bargain, however. According to him, our need for the migrating poor is more than an economic one; it's spiritual as well. Borrowing from Mother Teresa, he calls the poor "occasions for holiness."
"The poor are the instruments through which we become aware of God's grace in us. We can't be holy without the poor," he insists. "This is why it's not charity. If holiness is the path to a full life, the poor are crucial to our journey. We must root ourselves in some way with the poor."
Board member Brennan recalls a man who visited Annunciation's clothing bank during his volunteer days in the '80s. When offered a pair of socks by the staff member on duty, the man replied simply, "Oh, no thank you. I already have a pair. Give these to someone who needs them."
"Who among us would say that one pair of socks is enough?" Brennan asks. "We could learn a lot from the migrant poor about what it means to have enough."
Garcia recalls the story of a woman who arrived one night carrying her 6-month-old baby; her 7-year-old daughter was carrying a bag containing all their belongings. The woman was feverish and began crying, "You've got to help me. I have nowhere to go." She and her children were welcomed in and given food and medicine. After a few days, she landed a one-day job cleaning an El Paso woman's house. She returned that evening, proud to have earned $15 for a day of work. She asked Garcia if he could keep her money so she could save up to care for her family. He agreed to put the money in the house's safe, and she handed him $10. Then she held out the remaining $5 and said, "I see you doing good work helping the poor. I want you to use this to help someone worse off than me."
Garcia pauses strategically to let the full weight of the story sink in, then adds, "Where am I going to learn about God's gift of grace? It's the poor who have taught me that.
"We in the United States have a sense of being put upon. We define these people in terms of what they want from us." Ruben Garcia is convinced that the situation is, in fact, the reverse.
For more information about Annunciation House, visit HYPERLINK "http://www.annunciationhouse.org" www.annunciationhouse.org or call (915)533-4675.
A freelance writer living in western New York, Amy Durkee is a regular contributor to PRISM.