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For a year the author aided illegal immigrants who found their way to Annunciation House
It is 11:30 p.m. and I have just drifted from exhaustion into sleep, when the Annunciation House doorbell rings. The sound is loud and obnoxious, like the bell that signaled classes in my high school, and it emanates from a strategic location near my bed. The ringing is incessant and I start to get annoyed. Fumbling with my clothes and keys, I stagger from the night-duty bedroom into the office.
No one is waiting outside the office door, meaning that no emergency or triviality has compelled one of our guests to ring the bell there, an hour and a half past bed-check. Instead, the source is beyond the outer door, which I open to a middle-aged and slightly overweight Hispanic man who is already talking excitedly in staccato Spanish. Thankfully, despite my lack of fluency, I am able to understand most of what he is saying. He’s a little rattled. He says he’s just crossed, that he stayed at the House 12 years ago and knows Don Ruben (Ruben García, Annunciation’s director), that he has a young woman with him, that he’s from Honduras, that someone gave him a ride, that his name is Antonio. Está bien señor, vaya tranquilo, se puede quedarse acá, I say. It’s okay, calm down, you can stay here.
Annunciation House, where I’ve been working for a year, is some 10 blocks from the Mexican border, in downtown El Paso, Texas. It is an emergency shelter and, in effect, a way station for undocumented immigrants. It contains 54 guest beds, in three separate dormitories for men, women, and families and a room for unaccompanied minors. Six small rooms accommodate the live-in volunteers, along with the night-duty room. The two-story, red brick building also has a central office area, a small clinic, two kitchens, a large dining area, and a common room. Laundry is hung on the roof, which also serves as a haven for smokers (who risk being picked up by immigration officers if they loiter on the street); on holidays and other special occasions, the roof becomes a place for socializing and dancing. There are cavernous storage areas for food and donated supplies in the basement, and an extensive clothing bank. On any given night, between 15 and 60 immigrant guests sleep at the House, as volunteers call the place. There is also an overflow house, Casa Vides, named for two Salvadoreños who championed workers’ rights and lost their lives in the 1981–92 civil war. Located a 20-minute walk across town from Annunciation, it is often used for guests who have official business with the U.S. government, such as a petition for political asylum.
As Antonio speaks, I walk around the corner of the building, curious about the young woman he has mentioned. I see a gleaming Ford F-250 pickup hulking, motor running, at the curb. I can’t make out the driver in the shadows. A small young woman—or girl, maybe—edges toward me. Como se llama usted? I ask her. What’s your name, Miss? She looks at me with a bemused smile and after a long pause answers, Amalia. After a few more simple questions—are you with this man? where are you from? how are you feeling?—and her halting, vague answers, I begin to wonder if she is in shock.
I usher the pair inside to the kitchen, sit them down, and prepare hot drinks and plates of beans and rice, as Antonio continues his monologue. I am not sure what to make of these two. From Amalia’s accent—the soft s, the sing-song cadence—I gather that she is not from Mexico and is probably a Hondureña. The pair are not related, but Antonio says that he knows Amalia’s parents, that as a favor to the family he has accompanied her through Mexico, helping her to cross two borders illegally. He tells me that Amalia has been raped along the way, and she does not deny this. She wears battered high heels, once brown; when she pries them from her feet, she reveals a bloody mass of bruises and blisters, which I do my best to treat.
Later, I take Amalia and Antonio downstairs to the clothing bank so that Amalia can get socks and shoes that fit, a process that takes far longer than it should because Antonio breaks into nearly all of Amalia’s sentences and prattles on incessantly, pausing only to admonish her to hurry up. Maybe because I am tired and my defenses are low, he comes across benignly, as bumbling but solicitous of Amalia’s welfare. Eventually I find them beds, Antonio in the men’s dorm and Amalia in the women’s, and I can lie down again myself.
The following day, Antonio leaves without saying goodbye, and I can’t decide who he was. An overbearing uncle figure? A sexual opportunist who took advantage of a desperate young woman? An aging migrant worker fallen on hard times and returning to the land of opportunity? An honest coyote (smuggler) even, earning his pay by delivering his charge? Was he a Hondureño at all, or a passable Mexican thespian whom Amalia had just hired, with money or worse, to smuggle her across the border from Juarez, El Paso’s sister city on the Mexican side? I will probably never know, which is okay. I’m used to that now. In two days, I’ll finish my yearlong stint at Annunciation, which I began in April of 2007. I’ll leave Amalia and the rest of the guests behind, and this puzzling encounter will seem a fitting coda to my experience there.
Staffed by volunteers who commit to a year and by college students who stay for a summer, and supported entirely by private donations (government funding would render its work untenable), Annunciation House was started in 1978 by five young Catholics from El Paso. They received the building, which is located at the corner of a chaotic five-way intersection, from the local diocese. Ruben García told me that he and the other four founders did not move in with plans to create a refuge for undocumented immigrants. But, he says, “as we looked at the world around us,” including the two shelters already operating in El Paso, “we came to realize that in this border community, undocumented immigrants, the poor in migration, were not allowed to even have a place to sleep.”
Throughout the 1980s, the House was primarily a refuge for Guatemaltecos and Salvadoreños escaping the civil wars and atrocities in their home countries. There were often more than a hundred guests from Central America in a night, and it was frequently necessary to turn away Mexican migrants—drawn to U.S. jobs rather than propelled by violence at home—at the door. This changed in the 1990s, as the civil wars ended. The typical guest became a Mexican or Central American in search of greater economic opportunity, with a family to support back home.
A staff of, ideally, four to six volunteers live and work in the House under García’s direction, alongside local El Pasoans who donate a day or two of their time each week. There is also a small “core group,” who have completed a year of volunteer service and continue to work for the House full-time while receiving a monthly stipend. These individuals manage the accounting and office work and take on community outreach, including leading weeklong Border Awareness Experience trips for student and church groups from around the country. The guests of the House do all the cooking and clean up after meals, while the live-in volunteers are responsible for weekly and permanent assignments such as sorting donations, maintaining the clinic, and doing the house laundry. The live-ins also rotate shifts in the office, answering the phone and the door, receiving new guests and donations, and otherwise dealing with the myriad requests, problems, and surprises that arise throughout the day.
Though founded with the help of the diocese, the House is an independent nonprofit. The diocese, while philosophically supportive of the House’s work, is not involved in its administration, and provides no financial assistance. Because Annunciation House does not have the budget to hire professionals, there is no guarantee that tremendously useful personnel such as nurses, social workers, lawyers, or maintenance persons will be on staff, though they sometimes are. The only constants Annunciation can offer are the basics—food, clothing, shelter, a sympathetic ear. In the six months of October 2007 through March 2008, some 334 guests (222 male and 112 female) availed themselves of Annunciation’s aid; that total included 75 children ages 12 and under.
Asked about their motives for migration, nearly all of the House’s guests will cite the economic pull of the United States. The majority of migrants who come north to El Paso have connections somewhere in the United States—friends or relatives—who assure them that jobs are available. Mexican workers have been coming north for over 150 years, ever since Mexico ceded a third of its territory to the United States after the Mexican-American War. The Immigration Act of 1924 (which created the Border Patrol) and the Bracero Program for agricultural workers, which lasted from 1942 to 1964, represented large-scale attempts to legalize and regulate the migratory ebb and flow, in accord with U.S. labor needs. After 1964, many Braceros stayed on in the United States illegally. Migrants and employers can now legally connect with one another using H-2A (agricultural) and H-2B (non-agricultural) seasonal visas for low-skilled labor. But H-2B caps are set at 66,000 a year, far below demand, and while there is no cap on H-2A visas, farmers must overcome considerable bureaucratic hurdles to import help. Employers often bypass the system, hiring undocumented (or fraudulently documented) job seekers directly.
It has become increasingly difficult for migrant workers to cross the U.S.-Mexican border illegally. Up until the mid-1990s, the large bi-national urban centers, in particular Tijuana–San Diego and Juarez–El Paso, were the most popular places to cross. The Border Patrol responded by implementing Operation Hold the Line, hiring more agents and placing them at regular intervals along the border in urban areas. Helicopter patrols and large surveillance towers complement the agents on the ground. Now, even if a migrant manages to cross at a border town, the roads leading out of the city present Border Patrol checkpoints, with vehicular patrols in between.
Since Operation Hold the Line, it has become common to cross in the desert, which normally involves walking for three to five days through some of the most inhospitable terrain on earth, without adequate supplies of water and food, and while trying to evade the Border Patrol, bandits, and vigilantes. For such crossings a coyote is usually contracted, for upwards of $2,000—some combination of the migrant’s life savings, contributions from relatives, and, often, credit from the coyote. (The loan is leveraged against the migrant’s future earnings.) Coyotes have another name, polleros—literally, chicken wranglers. And indeed polleros frequently treat their charges as something less than human. It is standard practice for most polleros who guide large groups of migrants to abandon anyone who becomes ill or injured or who simply can’t keep up, and the bodies of hundreds of migrants, dead from dehydration or heat stroke, are found along the border every year. The odd humanitarian pollero does exist, usually in business for himself. But as crossing the border has been complicated by the Border Patrol’s growing numbers and advances in surveillance technology, the polleros are increasingly in the employ of large, sophisticated criminal organizations, including some with connections to Mexican drug cartels. These human smuggling rings have managed to boost illegal migration despite border security.
In 2006, when I was an aid worker in Nogales, Mexico, some 60 miles south of Tucson, Arizona, I met many people who had crossed in the barrenness of the Sonoran Desert and been subsequently deported. At Annunciation House, however, stories of such crossings are relatively rare. Most guests have either negotiated the gauntlet of river, canal, and three fences (topped with barbed wire) where the Rio Grande separates the two cities, or crossed the border on foot from the outskirts of Juarez, where tar-paper and wood pallet colonias (unincorporated settlements) fade into the desert on the Mexican side, just west of where the river begins to demarcate the border. Once in El Paso, migrants frequently stumble to the door of the nearest church, where they will likely receive directions and, if lucky, a ride to Annunciation House. Sometimes, they find the Rescue Mission (an affiliate of the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions), instead, or the Salvation Army shelter, from which they will likewise be directed to Annunciation, because those shelters receive federal grants that mandate them to turn away anyone who cannot provide proof of legal residency. Conversely, homeless U.S. citizens who come to Annunciation House will almost always be referred to the aforementioned shelters. Such a policy is necessary for two reasons: to save beds for migrants who don’t qualify at the other shelters, and to prevent conflicts from arising between undocumented guests and citizens, who may threaten to call the Border Patrol.
One might reasonably wonder how Annunciation House exists in the face of the Border Patrol. In fact, that agency and its parent, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, are well aware of the work of Annunciation, and also aware that any arrests they make will be referred to the U.S. Attorney’s office for possible prosecution. A federal statute establishes criminal penalties for anyone who “conceals, harbors, or shields from detection . . . an alien [who] has come to, entered, or remains in the United States in violation of law.” The question of whether Annunciation House volunteers engage in such conduct seems to hinge on the interpretation of the statute’s language, particularly the word “harbor.” In any event, the opinion that matters most belongs to the U.S. citizens who live in the Western Federal District of Texas: that is, the jury pool. In this heavily Hispanic district, no U.S. Attorney has seen fit in 30 years to bring charges against Annunciation House.
The Border Patrol has become increasingly reluctant over the years to come down hard on social service agencies that work with the undocumented. Three months after my arrival, two Border Patrol agents entered Annunciation House chasing a guest who had fled from a nearby street when they asked for his papers. They were in “hot pursuit” and therefore did not need a warrant. Nevertheless, as the guest ran upstairs, a volunteer confronted the agents and asked them to leave; to her surprise, they did. Given that Annunciation House enjoys tremendous community support, one can speculate that the agents feared inspiring a headline in the next day’s El Paso Times.
As for the volunteers, the question seems to come down to whether rising to the urgent need of another human being can in any way be considered a crime. Each volunteer’s choice to work at the House represents an emphatic answer of “no.” But as guests appear and disappear, activities unquestionably deemed “illegal” do come to light, whether in casual conversation over a shared meal, or as part of the job.
Upon arrival, each guest of the House is assigned a “contact volunteer” on the live-in staff. The contact volunteer’s job is to meet with his or her guests at least once a week, to assess each one’s situation, needs, and goals. Under the direction of the house coordinator, the maximum duration of a guest’s stay is set, based on those goals and, ultimately, on the guest putting forth a good-faith effort to achieve them. Consequently, the lengths of stay vary greatly, from a few nights for train-hoppers to a month or two for individuals who need to raise money (likely, as day laborers) to, in rare cases, a year or more for families in complex situations—for instance, those enmeshed in an ongoing petition for asylum.
Once in El Paso, there are several ways for undocumented migrants to enter the interior of the United States. The most secure requires payment, usually of $500 to $1,000, to a pollero who can arrange a place in the back of a big rig heading north or east through a checkpoint. Of the less secure alternatives, the most common is train-hopping. In my time at Annunciation, we hosted two Mexican women, Sylvia from Mexico City, and Romelia from Sinaloa, both of whom had fallen from, and then under, freight trains. The train cut off Sylvia’s foot above the ankle. Romelia lost her toes. Sylvia was able to obtain assistance from the Mexican Consulate towards a prosthesis, and is now in a northeastern U.S. city, working and sending money back to her two children. After a period of recovery, Romelia chose to return to Sinaloa. Not so fortunate was Armando, also from Mexico City, who left Annunciation House to train hop one night in July 2007. Several days later, we heard from his traveling companion that he had fallen from a train in Arizona and been hospitalized with brain damage. We never learned anything more.
Migrants refer to the freight train as la bestia—the beast. Central American train-hoppers, defined as “illegal” the moment they sneak into Mexico from Guatemala or Belize, ride the Mexican rails northward for a thousand miles. On a journey that may take weeks or months, they are hounded by bandits and pursued by the Mexican immigration service. Gangs of young Hondureños or Salvadoreños sometimes provide protection. Toward the end of my time at Annunciation we gave shelter to Ramón, a 15-year-old Hondureño, baby-faced and slight, but self-assured. He had left Tegucigalpa by himself at the age of 13 and settled in Veracruz, Mexico, where he found work in a tortillería and was sending money back to his mother and younger siblings. Almost a year passed before he was caught by Mexican immigration officials and returned to Honduras. On his next foray into Mexico, also solo, he reasoned that he might as well try to make his way to the United States, where he had relatives in a couple of states. Traveling on la bestia and often going for days without food, twice set upon by bandits, he got to within five hours of Juarez before being caught and again sent home. Undaunted, he began the journey a third time and finally made it to Juarez, where he was kidnapped and sexually assaulted. Several days after escaping his captors he crossed the Rio Grande without a pollero, eluding the Border Patrol and ultimately arriving, wet and alone, at our door.
I was assigned to be Ramón’s contact volunteer, a task I found profoundly difficult. He was a child, and sometimes played like one. But as his history unfolded it became clear that in his 15 years he had experienced struggle and loneliness and deprivation that I had no answer to. Once, I arranged for him to speak before a group of 30 confirmation students, all about his age, from a wealthy parish on the outskirts of El Paso. That was a mistake. While Ramón told his story for almost an hour, the students fidgeted, smirked, and whispered to one another. They couldn’t, or wouldn’t, come to grips with his experience. As for me, I think what was hardest to comprehend was not the breadth of Ramón’s struggle. It was the giant force of his hope.
After a week, Ramón left with two older Honduran guests. One of them, César, had made the journey north on la bestia before. Tienes que buscar una esquina para meterse—you have to find a corner to hide in—where you can lie flat or scrunch up and spread a large black plastic trash bag over yourself so that it looks like a shadow in the night. La migra—the immigration patrols—don’t rout out every niche, but most of the boxcars are locked, and it’s hard to find a suitable place. You have to be patient. On their first attempt, the three Hondureños watched and waited, hiding in the train yard most of the night, unrewarded. They didn’t return from their second attempt, and Annunciation House was tense for several days. After three nights we received a phone call: Todo fue bien, estamos en Denver! Such calls, which were regular occurrences, were always joyful occasions.
Immigration is but one ineluctable aspect of a large, incorrigible creature, La Frontera—the U.S.-Mexican border. Here are some other elements that attach to La Frontera: drug smuggling, violence against women, international trade, oppression of workers, environmental degradation, shantytowns, corruption, lawlessness. One hears it said often around El Paso, La Frontera is the only border on the planet between the first and third worlds.
Increasingly, those who migrate from Mexico to the United States first migrate within Mexico to work in the factories known as maquiladoras along the border’s south side. Maquiladoras are assembly plants (the word derives from the fee farmers once paid to millers), and they are owned by large U.S. and other foreign corporations. The maquiladoras originated in 1965 as part of the Border Industrialization Program (BIP), a joint initiative between the Mexican and U.S. governments designed in part to employ returning Braceros. Maquiladoras take in, duty free, components manufactured outside Mexico (including in the United States) and produce finished goods with cheap labor for export (often to the United States). Maquila workers assemble televisions, apparel, cars, and many other consumer items, which under the BIP may enter the United States without tariffs, an advantage also supported in 1994 by the North American Free Trade Agreement. Companies operating maquiladoras have included General Electric, Johnson & Johnson, BMW, Fisher Price, Levi Strauss, and Tiffany. The maquiladoras offer migrants the steady work that is in short supply in central and southern Mexico, but they pay around $50 a week, say Annunciation’s guests, nowhere near enough to provide for a family. The cost of living in a Mexican border town like Juarez is around 75 percent of what it is immediately on the other side. Since maquila workers can rarely afford to rent or buy a house, families become squatters, recycling packing crates, discarded tires, and stray building materials to construct shelter in the colonias. The colonias usually lack electricity, running water, and trash pickup, as well as medical facilities and schools. Colonia Anapra, on the west edge of Juarez, sits up against the border fence; its residents can gaze across to the Sunland Park Mall, where clothing, electronic gear, business supplies, and other goods produced in the maquiladoras are likely sold.
The residents of colonias inevitably learn that in El Paso, one can make $50 a day. El Paso’s market for low-skilled workers is saturated, but simply travel to the farms, factories, and restaurants in New Mexico, Colorado, or any other state, and it is possible to make two or three times in a day what one makes in a week in the maquiladoras around Juarez. Factor in the widespread violence and corruption in the colonias associated with the drug cartels, and the choice to cross becomes easy for many people. In recent years, the guests at Annunciation House have increasingly come from Juarez.
Lupita is a 25-year-old guest of annunciation House. She was four years old when her family moved to Juarez from Tlaxcala, east of Mexico City. The story of her life in Juarez is typical: With her parents struggling to support the family, she dropped out of school and worked various jobs, ending up in a maquiladora assembling airplane parts, before making her way to El Paso. Lupita arrived at Annunciation House with two children, having already lived in El Paso for several years; she’d recently been abandoned by her common-law husband. Eager to work, she had little or no idea how to manage money in this country. Her young boys exhibited health, behavioral, and developmental problems.
We helped Lupita connect with Head Start (a federal program), Early Childhood Intervention Services (a state agency), YWCA day care, and other support for two-year-old Mario and four-year-old Felix, both of whom, by birth, are U.S. citizens. With his alert dark eyes and enthusiasm for attention, Mario became a volunteer favorite, and I frequently ceded to his demands to be swept into the air. Felix, charmingly boisterous and built like a miniature NFL lineman, loved roughhousing and was never far from the center of attention himself.
While playing with her kids, I traded jokes and pleasantries with Lupita. Thin and dark-complexioned, outgoing and polite, she was a creative cook for our large group and a superb dancer. She remained upbeat despite her tribulations, and was clearly the source of Felix’s remarkable exuberance. We spoke Spanish and worked on her rudimentary but improving English.
One day, Mario, who suffers from chronic asthma, stopped breathing, and several of us volunteers rushed mother and child to the emergency room of the county hospital. The boy’s treatment required an extended stay, courtesy of local taxpayers. It was not the first time that I had taken a guest to the emergency room for “free” medical care, but I never became comfortable doing so, knowing that the cost would eventually be passed on to patients and other citizens who might be hard pressed to afford it. But I understood, too, that mother, son, and doctors had been swept along in a vast and complex calculus—economic, personal, social—beyond the power of one ordinary U.S. citizen, one undocumented migrant, or one mid-size Texas community to change. That calculus included Lupita long before she first stepped over the border into El Paso.
In any event, I was happy that Mario was alive.
Charles Vernon will enter law school at the University of Arizona in August. The names of Annunciation House guests have been changed.