For more than 35 years, the Border Patrol has referred illegal immigrants to Annunciation House in downtown El Paso, Texas, depending on the non-profit to steer them toward the social services they need while they await deportation hearings.
While volunteers at the small, red-brick building have always fought the funding battle familiar to so many faith-based organizations, director Ruben Garcia takes pride in never turning away a needy soul. But the massive wave of illegal immigrants now pouring across the border has stretched Annunciation House to the breaking point, and Garcia sees no end in sight. With processing facilities overwhelmed in south Texas, Immigration and Customs Enforcement is flying illegal immigrants to other offices, where they are processed and released pending their hearings. In most cases, that puts them on the street -- and in the hands of shelters like Annunciation House.
“ICE has no place to put all of these people, so they are released on their own recognizance and we find them housing,” Garcia said.
He estimates that more than 1,500 Central American illegal immigrants have been flown to El Paso and sent to his shelter in the past month. Planes and buses carrying hundreds of illegal immigrants from the Rio Grande sector have been arriving weekly in El Paso. Typically, illegal immigrants are told to report to immigration officials within 15 days. In the meantime, Garcia's team tries to give each one a place to sleep, a shower, a hot meal and a referral to longer-term housing.
Deportation hearings are scheduled where the illegal immigrants hope to move, typically with their families. In many cases, Annunciation House pays for bus or even plane tickets, sending its clients throughout the country.
Garcia, who has dedicated his life to helping the poor, including illegal immigrants, now finds himself angry with the federal government for not anticipating and preparing for the border crisis, which has seen as many as 50,000 unaccompanied children from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador flood across the border. Experts say they are fleeing exploding violence in their homelands, and are often under the misperception that once here, they'll be permitted to stay.
“Anyone who has worked at one of our embassies in these countries over the past few years would have seen this coming," Garcia said.
The horrors that the children are fleeing are real. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world outside of a war zone, with 90.4 homicides per 100,000 people. Much of the killing is concentrated in poor neighborhoods, where families will do anything to get their children to safety.
The violence, combined with an ambiguous White House policy, has created the situation at the border, according to Scott Stewart, vice president of tactical analysis at Texas-based private intelligence firm Stratfor. In June 2012, President Obama signed a memo called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which permits teen illegal immigrants to stay in the U.S. for up to two years. It also provided new discretion to ICE in enforcement of immigration laws. While DACA does not grant illegal immigrants permanent status, the policy is not well understood in Central America.
“In fact, we are seeing reports of teenagers showing up at the border with cheat sheets designed to help them gain DACA status and make it more difficult to be deported-like claiming their parents are dead,” Stewart said. “They are also being instructed to claim they were fearful for their security, though in many cases that is not a false statement."
Four years ago, there were only 6,000 unaccompanied illegal alien children coming to the border per year, according to Human Rights Watch. That number is expected to rise ten-fold this year, and possibly to as much as 100,000.
In a letter to Obama, Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, expressed concern that plans that have been outlined to accommodate the influx of more than 52,000 unaccompanied children this fiscal year to the southwest border may not actually be a violation of international law.
“We are deeply disappointed by the administration’s plans to open new detention centers for families, as well as by the ongoing detention of unaccompanied children,” Roth said in his letter. “As a general rule, children should never be detained for immigration reasons, as detention can have serious mental health consequences for children, including harm that lasts beyond the period of detention.”
For now, the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees ICE and the Border Patrol, is trying to discourage people in Central America and Mexico from making the dangerous trek to the border.
“Families need to understand that the journey north has become much more treacherous and there are no ‘permisos’ for those crossing the border illegally,” said CBP Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske. “Children, especially, are easy prey for coyotes and transnational criminal organizations and they can be subjected to robbery, violence, sexual assault, sex trafficking or forced labor.”
The State Department and the White House have been working with senior government officials in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico.
For now, the Border Patrol must move immigrants around to even out the burden at processing centers.
"The movement will allow the U.S. Border Patrol to assist in processing these family units," ICE said in a statement. "The transfer of immigrants between Border Patrol sectors occurs on a regular basis to allow U.S. Customs and Border Protection to manage flows and processing capability."
That means private social service providers like Annunciation House are left to do their best. Garcia is determined to find food and a bed for everyone sent to the shelter he founded in 1978. He estimates he has helped 125,000 over the years, a number that is suddenly growing rapidly. Garcia said his shelter has been given short notice when planeloads of illegal immigrants are coming in, "completely destitute, with literally no possessions but the clothes on their backs." The shorter the intervals between flights, the harder it is to absorb clients and send them to their families, he said.
"We were notified that another plane would land on Wednesday, followed by another on Thursday, another on Friday, another on Saturday, and another on Sunday," Garcia wrote on his blog last week. "We expect that many or all of them will be brought to us upon release, and we are trying to prepare for yet another whirlwind week of hospitality."