Meet the man going head-to-head with federal agents to help asylum-seeking immigrants cross the border

After initially being turned away at the border in El Paso, two families were allowed to enter the United States Wednesday to seek asylum with help from Ruben Garcia, the director of a local shelter who has made a practice of escorting immigrants across the bridge.

A group of American volunteers, led by Ruben Garcia, escorts a group of immigrants seeking asylum across the international bridge between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez. Julián Aguilar / The Texas Tribune

The Trump administration's “zero tolerance” immigration policy, which led to the separation of children from adults who crossed the border illegally, has fueled a national outcry. Sign up for our ongoing coverage. Send story ideas to tips@texastribune.org.

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CIUDAD JUAREZ – As news began to leak Wednesday morning that President Donald Trump was about to sign an executive order to end the practice of separating immigrant families, Ruben Garcia was making his way toward the international bridge on another mission.

Garcia, the director of the El Paso-based Annunciation House, spent Wednesday morning guiding two immigrant families to the top of the Paso Del Norte bridge that connects El Paso and Ciudad Juárez. Minutes later he was standing face-to-face with a group of Customs and Border Protection agents who were planted just over the international boundary, preventing people seeking asylum from entering the United States.

“They can wait and in the near term we will be able to process,” acting Port Director Ray Provencio told Garcia. “We will do everything we can to try and make sure we facilitate and streamline and make sure we open up some space as much as possible.”

But Garcia, whose El Paso shelter takes in immigrant children and families on a regular basis, had heard that before. He wasn’t convinced.

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“The idea when people who have already suffered tremendously are sent back ... I can’t see how that can be considered humane,” he told Provencio. “I know that last week you all released 360 persons to us. There have been weeks where you have released at least 1,000 people to us, so that’s how I know capacity isn’t an issue.”

Wednesday marked the fourth or fifth time Garcia has attempted to help families cross into the United States. The first time was a quieter affair, but with the separation of families at the border becoming international news, journalists from all over the country were on hand to see what would happen Wednesday.

“We’re going to continue until we see that there can be some changes," Garcia said. "When CBP says, ‘We don’t have room, we don’t have capacity,' my response to that is, make room and increase your capacity.”

Garcia opened the Annunciation House in the late 1970s after leading a group of idealistic young Catholics who wanted to do more for the people of El Paso and organizing a visit to the borderland by Mother Teresa, according to The Christian Science Monitor. On Wednesday, he seemed to lament how much had changed since then. 

“What is so sad for me is the realization is that we, the U.S., led the world in bringing about the [humane] treatment of people and we did that with great pride.”

Though the government has said in recent weeks that families seeking asylum should do so at a port of entry to avoid being criminally prosecuted and separated, Garcia and others have been monitoring the relatively new practice of agents asking border crossers for documents before they reach U.S. soil.

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The families he was accompanying on Wednesday, both from southern Mexico, said they are fleeing violence in their home country and had been turned away from the bridge before.

“They do not want to allow them to put their feet on U.S. soil,” Garcia told reporters just south of the international boundary. “People with fear have the right to apply for asylum, pure and simple.”

Federal officials have stated the new practice is necessary because the processing centers at the ports of entry have been filled to capacity. A CBP spokesperson said in an email Wednesday that port officials needed to focus on their primary mission.

“Port of Entry facilities were not designed to hold hundreds of people at a time who may be seeking asylum. Balancing these demands, keeping illicit goods and people out of the country, and managing the influx of Central Americans seeking asylum (along with everything else we do) requires a careful balance of our resources and space,” the statement said. "As in the past when we’ve had to limit the number of people we can bring in for processing at a given time, we expect that this will be a temporary situation."

It's not clear whether CBP's practice of turning people away at the international bridges will change after Trump's executive order Wednesday, which reverses the administration's recent policy of separating adults and children after they entered the United States illegally between the ports of entry.

On the bridge, Provencio stood firm and told Garcia that he’d do everything he could, but that the families wouldn’t be allowed to cross until there was room for them.

Garcia and his fellow advocates and volunteers said they’d wait.

About an hour later, the families were let past the boundary and escorted into the CBP processing facility. Reporters and photographers were barred from entering because the process is "private and delicate," an official said.

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Garcia emerged minutes later and said this was how the process is supposed to operate.

"What you just saw happen is exactly what should happen – they were allowed to cross the international bridge,” he said. “They presented to a CBP officer, the CBP officer obtained all the biographical information, saw their documents and now they are taken to the interior building where complete processing happens.”

There's no telling whether the families' asylum claims will be granted, and statistics show it's a long shot. In the 2016 fiscal year, more than 65,000 asylum claims were filed but only 8,700 were granted — although it's unclear in which year those successful claims were filed. 

That's out of Garcia's control, but he said he won't stop helping asylum seekers get a chance to petition the government for relief.

"I've accompanied families where they have not let them in, where we've had to go back," he said. "To what extent is [today's outcome] the result of the attention that was given to them by the media, I guess we can all speculate. But yes, I have a suspicion that had we not been with them, that [the families] would have been turned back."