The only thing separating El Paso, Texas, from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, is a canal that a child could wade across. That, plus a gross disparity in job availability, wages, and quality of life. Not to mention official U.S. border policies designed to keep undocumented guest workers out, even while unofficial economic policies all but encourage American farms, restaurants, and hotels to hold consumer prices down by hiring undocumented laborers for the roughest, most menial work.
And so every year perhaps up to 4,000 people - no one is sure exactly how many - wade north across the canal when they think the Border Patrol isnt looking, or wedge themselves into the nooks of cars or vans crossing one of the congested bridges linking the cities across the Rio Grande, or pay coyotes and polleros - people-smugglers, the latter term meaning "chicken wranglers" - to sneak them across by some other means. Today, 8 to 12 million undocumented immigrants are in the United States, many of them living in hiding and in poverty.
Yet they neednt live without a home. Since the late 1970s, El Pasos Annunciation House has opened its doors to immigrants and refugees on the U.S.-Mexico border. The 20-volunteer organization includes a residence for immigrants trying to get on their feet, as well as separate facilities for those seeking political asylum and for women and children, and a building in a Juárez squatters neighborhood that provides support and space for community-building efforts. Sometimes the Border Patrol looks the other way; sometimes it arrests Annunciation House volunteers. In early 2003, an agent shot and killed a 19-year-old guest who was running away with a pipe in his hand.
The work can be discouraging, but its an essential component of its founders faith. "Were working with an unequivocal certitude that for God there is no such thing as an illegal human being," says Ruben Garcia, Annunciation Houses director. "And God would have no problem providing hospitality to these people."
IN 1976, GARCIA WAS running the youth department of the Catholic Diocese of El Paso. "The young adults I worked with wanted to buy into something that had depth and substance," he says, but they didnt know exactly what that might be. During weekly meetings over the next several months, the group reflected on how its members could live lives with meaning, and do so in a substantive way.
"As we reflected on scripture," he recalls, "we realized that the God we believe in is one who first and foremost identifies with people who are oppressed, people who are enslaved, the stranger in our midst, the poor. We realized what we needed to do was place ourselves among the poor in our own area."
In early 1978, five members of the group gained rent-free access to the second floor of a building owned by the diocese, still without a clear notion of what to do. "We started trying to understand where it was that the poor would take us," says Garcia.
The group had no money, and initially its members circulated through El Pasos impoverished neighborhoods, connecting people with social service agencies. Eventually they realized that the citys two homeless shelters would not accept undocumented immigrants. Thats when the volunteers of Annunciation House discovered their mission.
By word of mouth, people began to hear about the house and guests began to arrive, seeking the very basic food and shelter Annunciation House could offer. There were only four or five at first, but within a few years the organization was offering hospitality to 120 people at a time. Garcia estimates that over the past quarter-century, Annunciation House has hosted more than 80,000 immigrants, refugees, and undocumented workers.
Although the origin of Annunciation House coincided with the Sanctuary movement, in which many American congregations declared their churches to be sanctuaries for people fleeing political upheaval in Latin America, Garcias group stood apart from that effort.
"These churches would go through a long process of discernment to make the decision to declare sanctuary and take in a single family," says Garcia. "Id tease them and say, Youve gone through this long process to take in four people, but at Annunciation House we already have 100 people. Youve got the theology, but weve got the bodies!"
IN TRUTH, THEOLOGY - or, more precisely, faith - lies at the heart of the work at Annunciation House.
"The God that we believe in," says Garcia, "is a God who says, I am first and foremost in among the widow and the orphan, the stranger in a strange land. So if we are to recognize that in our own work, it requires us to trust in the providence of God, to live simply, to make ourselves available to people without charging anything and without expecting anything in return.
"We said at the beginning that we should shy away from funding sources or resources that would try to control us or make us be something different from what we were trying to be. Almost 27 years later, Annunciation House continues to be sustained by the spontaneous commitment and generosity and solidarity of people, and of course by a volunteer staff. Individuals come from all over the United States and from six or seven countries to commit to living and working in our houses for one to three years at a time, with no financial help."
The ideal volunteer, says Garcia, can "walk on water and multiply loaves and fishes and turn water into wine." Short of that, hell accept someone like Kansas-born Megan Hope, who first worked at Annunciation House when she was 22 and now, nine years later and after getting a masters in Latin American studies, is completing a second year with the organization.
"You dont know from one day to the next if youll be helping somebody get medical assistance or get hooked up with a lawyer, or if youll be running some errand, or talking to the Mexican consulate, or unclogging a toilet," she says.
"The difficult part is on an emotional basis. The first time I was here, I was really the only volunteer at one of the houses, with 15 guests. I came into Rubens office crying, saying I hadnt done a very good job of meeting the needs of the guests, and that I sometimes felt incapable of doing anything worthwhile for them. He said he suspected I was experiencing my own poverty. What that means is sort of being broken up and made to realize how limited our capacity is for so many things, and realizing we dont have the power to change peoples realities; sometimes we dont even have the ability to comfort people in the way wed like to.
"Like our guests, all of us are on our own solitary journeys, with moments of doubt and loneliness and isolation and frustration, and with an incredible need for faith and hope."
Garcias advice to other communities interested in starting an organization like Annunciation House is simple: "You dont need money and connections to make this succeed," he says. "You need trust. There has to be some sense of belief in what is calling you; even if it doesnt make sense, you continue to walk down the road."
James Reel is a freelance writer who covers border and arts issues from Tucson, Arizona.