On a weekday morning in early June, Ruben Garcia arrived at the Casa Oscar Romero building leased by Annunciation House, the hospitality center that he founded and that has served the indigent and immigrant community in El Paso, Texas, since 1978. He wore a striped button-down shirt and wire-rimmed glasses, his disheveled white hair loosely tumbling to one side. Garcia was orchestrating logistics for roughly 800 migrants arriving into the region that day. He received no government salary for this work. He was not doing it at the direction of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the $9 billion agency charged with detaining and transporting migrants. He was taking responsibility for these desperate and poor asylum-seekers because no one else would.
For several months spanning the spring and summer, volunteers such as Garcia made up an unheralded network of care ensuring basic safeguards—food, security, and transportation—for migrants caught up in a cynically manufactured crisis at America’s southern border. As the Trump White House pushed an image of chaos and lawlessness wrought by families in search of asylum, people in cities like El Paso offered support to those families. Some of those at the heart of this volunteer network, including the area’s congressional representative, worry that the White House’s campaign may have been a contributing motive for an alt-right fanatic who in August killed 22 people at a local Walmart in El Paso patronized by the city’s immigrant community.
Emails among El Paso officials from March show that they deferred to Annunciation House’s capacities in discussions with ICE about where to send migrants who had been recently detained at the border as part of President Trump’s crackdown on immigration. Throughout the summer, Garcia, a Jesuit-trained volunteer in his 70s, advised ICE agents on a daily basis where to send hundreds of migrant families among 30 hospitality centers—churches, nonprofits, community- and city-run shelters, and more—throughout far west Texas and southeastern New Mexico and beyond.
Only a few months earlier, Garcia said, he had relied on ICE agents to transport migrants with pending asylum cases to these centers. Upon their arrival, they would be fed and housed until they could make more long-term arrangements as they awaited their court dates. But in March, the authority to release asylum-seekers abruptly transferred to U.S. Border Patrol, which refused to deliver them to these orderly respite centers. Instead, the agency started releasing thousands of people, often with just the clothes on their backs and no means of contacting friends or family, into city streets across New Mexico, Texas, Arizona, and California.
One of those places was rural Deming, New Mexico, which received 4,700 migrants in 2019, more than a third of the town’s population, mostly between the months of April and July. Now, from 100 miles away in El Paso, Garcia was coordinating with Deming’s officials to arrange transportation for migrants there.
With a tired sigh, Garcia struggled to capture the dilemma these towns are facing. “So, I’m Border Patrol, you’re the mayor of Deming,” Garcia said. “I call you and say, ‘I’m gonna release 150 people.’ You say, ‘You can’t do that.’ And I say, ‘Here’s the phone number to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, be my guest.’”
Shifting responsibility for the releasing of migrants from ICE to Border Patrol, the enforcement arm of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, was a huge change to official Department of Homeland Security policy. It followed the quiet termination in October 2018 of the “Safe Release” system, which since 2009 had involved Border Patrol and ICE agents providing asylum-seekers with a phone to contact family or friends already living in the country, and delivering them to a bus station or airport with their tickets already booked—or to a humanitarian shelter that could assist with travel. The end of Safe Release set the stage for a highly localized humanitarian crisis when the number of asylum-seekers began to rise this spring—soon after, the Trump administration announced a national emergency on the border, citing the “sharp increases” of asylum seekers in border towns.
According to a letter undersigned in May by the mayors of 22 cities in border states, some 168,000 migrants traveling in the previous six months received care from local governments and humanitarian centers, forming a regional network that served as de facto refugee resettlement agency. The brunt of the effort was borne by smaller cities near the border. Hundreds of huddled migrants left on street corners; missing paperwork; a daily scramble for available beds—all the tumultuous result of the Trump administration’s refusal to deal with the fallout from its own immigration policies.
This report was based on conversations with more than a dozen local officials and humanitarian aid workers, as well as a review of internal communications between officials in El Paso and the Rio Grande Valley—the two CBP sectors where refugee border crossings were highest in the spring. These interviews and internal records reveal an informal system of asylum assistance highly dependent on overworked volunteers, and document the immense strain placed on cities, towns, and nonprofits that have attempted to help the migrants. They show, at the very least, a woeful pattern of incompetence and neglect on the part of the federal government. They may also show something more nefarious: a concerted attempt to create a climate of crisis by detaining and releasing migrants in the most chaotic way possible.
On that morning in June, Garcia thumbed his iPhone, communicating with various officials: El Paso Mayor Dee Margo; El Paso Congresswoman Veronica Escobar; the city’s fire chief, a county judge, a commissioner, a county attorney, even a campaign staffer for Beto O’Rourke. On at least three occasions, the office of New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham provided him with buses to take people out of Texas. Garcia’s unofficial jurisdiction included not just Deming and El Paso, but also Dallas in Texas; Lordsburg, Mesilla, Chaparral, Anthony, and Albuquerque in New Mexico; and, occasionally, even Denver, Colorado. As the liaison handling arrangements among dozens of shelter spaces, cities, counties, and federal agencies, he was the only one who knew how much bed space was available on a given night.
As we were talking, a group of 60 adults and children entered the cafeteria of the Casa Oscar Romero and sat at the long table, unfolding the chairs resting against the walls. In the kitchen, volunteers dished piles of fried chicken into large metal bowls. The building also had rooms with beds, blankets, and toys; on the walls were instructions for how to read plane and bus itineraries. A map featuring all of Greyhound’s routes across the country was posted near the entrance, where a boy squirmed on a bench.
- ‘Normally it’d be a federal employee doing a lot of this work, and we have volunteers doing it.’