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A refuge for immigrants in El Paso is the 'Ellis Island of the Southwest border'

A refuge for immigrants in El Paso is the 'Ellis Island of the Southwest border'
Ruben Garcia, executive director of Annunciation House, says the nonprofit was founded 40 years ago by five young people who wanted to serve the poor and homeless. (Aaron Montes / For The Times)

On a hot summer morning in El Paso, a Customs and Border Protection agent rang the doorbell of Annunciation House, a nonprofit that provides support to immigrants.

A volunteer named Emily Polstein, 25, promptly opened the white steel door and greeted the agent with a hello.

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The agent had brought a woman in her early 30s, an asylum seeker, because there was no more room for her to stay in Customs and Border Protection facilities.

With a large black-and-white bag in hand, the woman entered the nonprofit’s main lounge area and sat down with Polstein, who said she was welcome to stay at Annunciation House if she wanted. Yes, the woman said.

Shelters serving immigrants often lock horns with immigration authorities, but Annunciation House and Customs and Border Protection have formed an unusual partnership, prompted in part by the large numbers of immigrants crossing the border near El Paso and the effects of the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance immigration policy.

When the federal agency’s facilities are overflowing, agents bring immigrants who have been released from custody to the two-story, brick building next to the Mexican Consulate.

“This building is the Ellis Island of the Southwest border,” said Ruben Garcia, executive director of Annunciation House.

Some immigrants stay for days or weeks, while others swiftly move on to live with relatives as their case is being adjudicated.

“We tell them the rules of the house and explain they are not in detention,” Polstein said. “They have the choice to stay or go with family.”

For four decades the nonprofit has provided shelter to thousands of immigrants looking for work in the United States and those entangled in immigration proceedings. Annunciation House took on a national profile this summer as the federal government scrambled to reunite thousands of migrants who were separated from their children after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

In El Paso, the attention has brought more support and donations, and the building is brimming with donated food, clothing and diapers. Some donors have purchased bus tickets so immigrants could travel to relatives throughout Texas or out of state.

Garcia and his staff of 12 volunteers have teamed up with a network of about 40 churches and immigrant rights advocates in El Paso to provide a temporary home and support for thousands of immigrants. Together, they have witnessed the reunification of parents and their children.

“From the beginning, Annunciation House found itself gravitating to the refugee,” Garcia said.

He and four others formed Annunciation House in 1978. They were in their 20s, a few still attending college, and unsure of what they would accomplish in life.

Garcia said they knew they wanted to serve the poor and homeless, but it wasn’t until they began speaking to immigrants looking for shelter that they realized their calling. Some community shelters refused to accept migrants if they lacked state-issued identification, Garcia said.

“We basically stopped going to school to do this, and I eventually quit my job,” he said. “If you were undocumented, you had no place to stay. So, there started Annunciation House’s journey with refugees and immigrants.”

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The walls inside the building are decorated with murals — a stairway to the second floor leads to an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe — and prayers written in English and Spanish. The dining room features a painting of Jesus sharing a meal, not with disciples in biblical garb, but modern-day immigrants.

Several women and children had gathered near the kitchen and were ready for lunch: weenies, rice and beans.

“It smells really good,” one woman said in Spanish.

The building has 9,600 square feet, and it often feels like every square foot is occupied by some person or some thing.

A 10-year-old boy was washing his clothes by hand on the roof — the only place available — and hanging them on a clothesline with everyone else’s. The basement was crammed with clothes, shoes and at least 50 boxes of diapers.

Volunteers live, work, talk, cook meals and keep the residence clean along with their “guests,” as residents are called. Volunteers make a point of asking guests how they’re adjusting to their new country.

“People show up and seem lost and freaked out,” said Polstein, who is from New York and is wrapping up a year of volunteer work at Annunciation House.

One recent resident was Jocelyn, 32, a Brazilian woman who was thankful for the support she had received from Annunciation House, said Linda Rivas, executive director of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center.

Jocelyn is one of two plaintiffs in a lawsuit in San Diego challenging Trump administration immigration policies. She came to the U.S. last August seeking asylum and was detained near the border for seven months and separated from her 15-year-old son, James, who was sent to a shelter in Chicago.

After being released in April, she moved into Annunciation House and began the process to get James back. Mother and son were reunited in June and plan on moving to the Northeastern U.S. Their full names were withheld at the request of Rivas, citing concerns about their security.

“Thank God for Annunciation House,” Jocelyn said. “They gave me hope in a dire situation.”

The relationship between Annunciation House and Customs and Border Protection was not always a good one. Garcia said the Border Patrol led a raid on the building in 1984, and in 2003 the agency was responsible for the death of Juan Patricio Peraza Quijada, a 19-year-old Annunciation House resident who was in the country illegally.

When five agents approached Peraza outside the building, he ran and they chased him. The agents alleged he threatened them with a pipe, and one agent, Vernon Billings, fatally shot him. In 2008, U.S. Magistrate Judge Richard P. Mesa found that Billings’ actions were justified.

Annunciation House holds a vigil for Peraza each Feb. 23, the anniversary of his killing.

Around 2014, when the border was inundated with families fleeing deteriorating conditions in Central America, Annunciation House and Customs and Border Protection began working together. The agency said it releases families and single adults to Annunciation House after they are processed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The purpose is to ensure they are provided transportation and a safe environment.

“This practice has existed for several years,” Customs and Border Protection said in a statement. “This is a common practice along the Southwest Border.”

One recent morning, not long after the Customs and Border Protection officer dropped off the young woman, another staffer with the agency called Garcia with a question. The agency was holding a woman and her child at the Paso del Norte Port of Entry in downtown El Paso. Would Annunciation House accept them?

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“Absolutely,” Garcia replied.

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