The Poorest of the Poor
From its beginnings, Annunciation House has sought to live out its purpose and identity with and among the poor. The commitment has been to respond to the poorest of the poor, those who for one reason or another are not assisted by existing social service agencies. With Annunciation House being located a few blocks from the border between the United States and Mexico, it quickly became evident that, in the El Paso/Ciudad Juarez community, the peoples from south of the border were the most vulnerable and least able to receive services from these existing agencies.
These people who have variously been called illegals, mojados, or aliens are best identified by their undocumented immigration status and the poverty, injustice, and oppression which are so much a part of their reality. Over the years, these individuals have become the primary constituency of Annunciation House. Among them are immigrants from Mexico and Central America who have come north to the border area in search of food, employment, survival, and some way of supporting their families back home. Political refugees who have fled Central American countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua also have stayed in our houses in significant numbers throughout the years.
Guests at Annunciation House
While these groups have remained the primary focus of our work, we also have provided hospitality to other vulnerable groups of peoples in migration. Some have been political asylees from all corners of the world, including Africa, Central Asia, and other Latin American nations. Others have been unaccompanied minors, traveling north to reunite with family members in the United States or fleeing gang violence in their Central American countries. Still others have been injured immigrants—many of them amputees—in need of respite and recovery, who have sacrificed life and limb in the perilous journey north. Mexican widows and their families, eligible to receive the Social Security survivors’ benefits and required to periodically reside in the United States, also have been frequent guests. And more recently, we have been opening our doors to families of this border area who are undocumented or of mixed immigration status and are finding it increasingly difficult to support themselves in a society that relegates them to the shadows. All of these peoples in migration are those we have gladly welcomed into our houses of hospitality over the years.
As our mission of offering hospitality and sanctuary to peoples in migration—primarily the undocumented—has remained constant, the social and political context in which we have done so has continued to change over the years. In a contemporary U.S. climate that demonizes and marginalizes the immigrant, volunteers give witness to the cry for justice that springs forth from their lands through their willingness to offer hospitality to the undocumented. It becomes important, therefore, for volunteers to have an understanding of this aspect of the work of the house and the commitment which it asks.
Specifically, volunteers understand that their decision to live and work among these poorest of the poor—to offer hospitality to the undocumented stranger among us—carries with it a certain amount of risk. While the nature and consequence of that risk is not quantifiable, we recognize that efforts have been underway in the United States to make life unbearable for the undocumented and to penalize those of us who serve them. For example, legislation proposed in 2005 (HR 4437) threatened to criminalize groups and individuals who provide humanitarian assistance to the undocumented. In this punitive environment that generates such inhumane legislation, we at Annunciation House remain committed to serving our immigrant sisters and brothers regardless of their immigration status. Our decision to serve and to bear witness to their reality remains a choice of conscience. As Cardinal Roger Mahony, Archbishop of the Diocese of Los Angeles, poignantly reminded us, “Denying aid to a fellow human being violates a law with a higher authority than Congress—the law of God.”
Due to the nature of our work, it has not been unusual for volunteers and guests to have had contact with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its various components, including Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). (The former Immigration and Naturalization Service and Border Patrol are now under DHS jurisdiction.) While there is no official relationship between Annunciation House and DHS, contact and communication can be frequent at times. There have been occasions when DHS has referred people to Annunciation House, explaining to them that the house provides shelter and food for those who have no resources or place to stay.
However, there have also been moments of frustration and tension with DHS and its components, Border Patrol or ICE. Annunciation House does not see the undocumented as “aliens” or “illegals.” Instead, we welcome them as Jesus in the distressing disguise of some of the “least among us.” It is painful and frustrating to see house guests picked up by Border Patrol, detained and deported. The guests quickly cease to be statistics of far away places and become living witnesses of a reality that deeply affects the volunteers. Most people have no idea of what life is like for the undocumented. There is no sense of why they have left their countries to come and live in the United States.
The undocumented are the heart and soul of the work of Annunciation House. It is a conscientious decision to see in them the Gospel call of treating the “least among us” as we would the Christ. Nobel Peace laureate and poet, Elie Wiesel, while addressing a group working with refugees said, “There is no such thing as an illegal human being!” If there be truth to that statement, if the Gospel be heard, then volunteers coming to Annunciation House must be willing to say to those who come to the door, “Bienvenidos! Mi casa es su casa.”
Why they come
Their stories are stories of poverty, stories of hungry, malnourished children, stories of cardboard houses, stories of no work, stories of violence, stories of government oppression, stories of fear.
They come to us from Mexico, Central America, and countries beyond, fleeing economic crisis, drug cartels, illiteracy, and unemployment. They come to escape the violence of globalization that manifests itself in crushing poverty, unemployment, low wages, and hunger. They come to escape the institutionalized violence that comes from governments seeking to repress those working for literacy, better jobs, and better health care for their people. For our guests, the United States represents an opportunity- an opportunity to earn a wage that will lift them out of poverty, to live out of the reach of the violence and corruption of their home countries, and sometimes the opportunity to create a new life for themselves and their families. Each guest has a story, and each story is different. But all have been pushed into the stream of migration by the extreme circumstances of their lives. They find themselves under one roof for a singular moment in time. This is Annunciation House.
With them the guests also bring their stories of faith and hope. They desire to find work and security. They desire to be reunited with a father, mother, brother, sister or friend not seen for a year or maybe five. Or perhaps they know a friend of a friend who can help them find a way in this country.
Often their hope -the address of a relative or friend- is scribbled on a tiny piece of paper. If all goes well a phone call can lead to travel money through Western Union and a bus or plane ticket to Los Angeles or New York. Perhaps they stay at the House a few days until the money arrives.
For most, however, moving on is not so easy; it is not so fast. They find their lives on hold. To get here most have had to sell all that they had for travel money. For many, that was not enough, so they ended up begging for food or not eating along the way. Some arrive at the house having not eaten for a day or two or more. Some ended walking many miles, or hopping a train, or hitching a ride. Some believed the words of a coyote, who promised to bring them all the way to Los Angeles or to New York without any problems. They find themselves abandoned in Mexico City, Ciudad Juarez, or a cheap hotel in El Paso, robbed of their money and identification, with little or no idea of how to continue their journey. Their hopes, their dreams, are dampened by more than the river they cross to arrive. Still, they are people of faith. They have to be to do what they do.
They arrive with no suitcases, only the clothes on their backs. They have no bank account, often no friends, no job, no social services available to them, no health insurance. They do not realize how many doors are closed to them. They hadn’t realized that they would be for the most part unwelcomed, unwanted. They live in fear: the fear of being caught by U.S. immigration authorities, the fear of being detained in the correlon (the DHS detention center), the fear of deportation, the fear of failing their families.
In spite of all of this, our guests in many ways are the lucky ones: the ones with the where-with-all to make the journey to El Norte, the fabled land of opportunity. “Los mas pobres” of Central America and Mexico seldom make it to our doorstep. They struggle to survive in the shanty towns of San Salvador or the slums of Mexico City. The people that come to the house are the keepers, the guardians of the human spirit that continues to struggle in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. They are the new chosen people of God. They bring their sufferings, their hopes, their gratitude. We must listen to them, and we must learn from them.
They are prophets, and as prophets they call us to open our hearts and our homes. They challenge us to a higher level of understanding and compassion. They call us to fully comprehend that we are all one, all united in the body of Christ. They ask us to be the innkeepers that say “yes” to Maria and Jose when they knock in the night. They lead us to look critically at the gap between the rich and the poor and to reject the collective social sin of structural injustices. These tired men and anguished women, these hungry children, call us to conversion -to cross the road and offer a hand to the traveler in the ditch. And though they come from countries and streets where Christ continues to be crucified on a daily basis, these migrants, these homeless people also bring us the Good News of the resurrection. They show us that the last words are life not death, hope not despair.
“Nothing is so important to the church as human life, as the human person, and above all, the person of the poor and oppressed, who, besides being human beings, are also divine beings, since Jesus said that whatever is done to them he takes as done to him. That bloodshed, those deaths, are beyond politics. They touch the very heart of God.”