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Downtown Shelter Houses Undocumented Immigrants, Acts As Resource For CBP

Marisela Reyes Salazar is a survivor.

The Guadalupe, Chihuahua native spoke with ABC-7 about horrors endured in her homeland that led her and her family to seek political asylum in the U.S.

“I don’t wish this on anyone,” said Reyes Salazar. Tears streamed down her face as she recalled all the murders in her family: 2 sisters, 2 brothers, a nephew and a sister-in-law all killed, she said, by thugs and crooked cops operating in Mexico’s bloody drug war.

Reyes Salazar recounted the time her brother Ruben was shot in the head. He had just dropped his daughter off at the school where Marisela Reyes Salazar worked. She heard gunshots and saw her big brother’s body on the street– bits of flesh from his face splattered all over.

Overwhelmed with grief, Reyes Salazar said she began picking up the pieces of her brother’s broken body and placing them closer to him. “In that moment, I had so much pain that I thought if I could gather his remains, I could put him back together (…) at least to see his face one last time,” she said.

Reyes Salazar and her surviving siblings and relatives received death threats and had their homes burned down. They decided to seek political asylum for fear of their lives.

Reyes Salazar now lives in one of the shelters run by Ruben Garcia, director of downtown El Paso’s Annunciation House. The Annunciation House is a homeless shelter in downtown El Paso primarily serving undocumented immigrants.

“People have been severely traumatized and it is so important that when they say, ‘I can not be in my country,’ and they come to us at our ports of entry, that we don’t treat them as if they’re some sort of criminal”, said Garcia.

Garcia said that sometimes, American immigration officials even call him to take in undocumented immigrants with nowhere else to go.

Garcia said those cases are usually families like Marisela Reyes Salazar’s, who have been processed and can prove their lives are in danger. Garcia said the cases referred to him by Customs and Border Protection have been screened for criminal backgrounds and do not have a place to stay while their political asylum cases play out in the courts.

The Annunciation House has been around 34 years and, along with two related shelters downtown, Garcia’s team is capable of accomodating about 100 guests– most of them undocumented immigrants. Why haven’t these shelters been shut down?

“Border patrol has a policy– and it’s not just here– of not interfering with social service agencies: churches, funeral homes, hospitals,” said Garcia. “Probably one half of the people in this house are referred to us from CBP. It’s not that they don’t have room, it’s that they don’t want to lock you up because of the human rights implications of that.”

However, the relationship between immigration officials and Annunciation House guests is still a delicate one. Only staff can open the doors to avoid misunderstandings, and Garcia imposes limits when it comes to sharing information.

“We won’t tell immigration (officials) if somebody leaves. There was a time when they asked us, ‘When people leave will you tell us?’ and we’ve said, ‘No, that’s not our job. Our job is not to detain people,'” said Garcia.

Garcia said years ago a top Border Patrol official told him and other social service agency heads that officials did not want to interfere with their work– unless it involved a pursuit, a warrant, or if the agency itself called officials for help.

Marisela Reyes Salazar said she doesn’t know what she would do without the Annunciation House’s help. She has no relatives or friends in El Paso. Garcia and his team of volunteers worked to set Reyes Salazar up with an attorney to help expediate her political asylum case.

“I’m just looking for safety,” she said.

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