EL PASO — Ruben Garcia, to be clear, is not a man easily impressed by PR gestures or empty rhetoric on the subject of immigration. Born and bred in El Paso, he’s been running Annunciation House, a Catholic hospitality center for migrants and refugees, for almost 40 years, and he’s seen far too much to be conned.

Ask Garcia what he makes of political vows to clamp down on illegal immigration by “getting tough,” for instance, and he’ll tell you the story of a 44-year-old Guatemalan woman currently staying at Annunciation House with steel rods in both legs as a result of hip fractures suffered in a desperate attempt to scale a 14-foot security barrier.

Now utterly destitute, she paid a smuggler roughly $3,000 each for herself and her 14-year-old daughter to get across Mexico, and another $1,500 to be shown where to try to cross into the United States. They were fleeing a situation in which young girls were being kidnapped and forced into sexual servitude by criminal gangs, and the mother was determined that no matter what – “no matter what,” Garcia stresses – that wouldn’t happen to her daughter.

“You turn up the pressure cooker enough,” Garcia said, “and it doesn’t matter how hard to you try to prevent people from coming, they’re going to come.”

“We want to make it rational, and it’s not,” he said in an interview on Monday with Crux. “It’s basically, as a mother or a father, I will do anything to try and protect my kids.”

Thus when Garcia says that Pope Francis’ stop at the US-Mexico border on Wednesday has “absolutely immense value,” it’s not simply kneejerk sentiment, but a carefully considered appraisal.

“He’s coming without any military or economic might, simply with his white cassock and this incredible moral standing,” Garcia said, “and he’s saying, ‘Woe unto all of you who are incapable of understanding that God lives in these people.’”

“He’s coming to say to us, ‘I identify with the poor,’ and to be a living critic of our fear,” he said. “Nobody identifies with that more than our people.”

An earnest Catholic, Garcia was a social worker who specialized in youth and young adult services back in the mid-1970s when he and a group of other idealistic young Catholic laity decided to quit their jobs to serve the poor, which in the border region typically means immigrants.

Certainly no one can accuse Garcia of failing to walk his own talk. Never married, he nonetheless raised six children of a El Salvador couple he had befriended as his own, after the mother and father were assassinated and the children left orphaned.

In 1976 the El Paso diocese gave Garcia’s group use of the second floor of a nondescript, red brick building downtown, which became the basis for Annunciation House, located just ten blocks from the border. Today it has a staff of 11 and runs four welcome centers, housing around 100 people at a low ebb, and scores more when arrivals peak. Typically, guests stay anywhere from a couple of weeks to several months.

Francis will only be in Ciudad Juarez for eight hours, just long enough to visit a prison, meet with a group of workers, and say Mass, an itinerary that includes a stop at the US-Mexico separation barrier to deliver a blessing. On the US side will be group of roughly 600 “Francis VIPs,” mostly immigrants, including 50 guests from Annunciation House.

Even in that short span, Garcia says, two things should become clear to the pontiff. One, he said, is the progressive “militarization” of the border.

“From 1993 to 2016, the number of immigration detention beds nationally went from a couple thousand to 35,000, and with those beds comes a mandate to keep them filled,” he said. “You also see the doubling and redoubling of the Border Patrol.”

“Technologies developed for war are being deployed on the border, including motion detection, night vision, drones, high-definition cameras, and so on,” he said.

Garcia said the trend to militarization has been underway since 1993 and the signing of NAFTA, but it intensified dramatically post-9/11.

“It had been like trying to fight immigration with pencils and rubber bands, but 9/11 gave you bazookas and Sherman tanks,” he said.

The militarization, he said, doesn’t stop at the border’s edge. It extends to large checkpoints erected on all five roads leading out of El Paso, in an effort to sweep up illegal immigrants who evaded detection the first time.

That reality, he said, drives people into even more desperate choices.

“There’s a guy here right now thinking of hopping the train to try and get past the checkpoint,” he said. “I didn’t tell him what to do, but I did tell him that we’ve had people before who tried to hop the train, and two weeks later we get a phone call because they fell off and the train took off their leg.”

Second, Garcia said, most immigrants crossing into the United States today aren’t doing so primarily in search of economic opportunity, but are being driven into it by violence.

“In 2010 and 2011, when the violence in Juarez got so bad, 100,000 people left and passed into the El Paso-Las Cruces corridor, and they’re still living here,” he said. “They crossed over as a way of protecting themselves.”

“From what we have seen, violence is the most significant push factor in the flow of people, whether it’s Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, or Mexico,” he said.

Asked what keeps him going, Garcia told another story, this one involving a woman from the Mexican state of Guerrero who spent time at Annunciation House roughly four months ago. Back home she had a large and vibrant family, he said, describing it as “the Mexican equivalent of a Norman Rockwell painting.”

At one point, she told Garcia, two of their sons disappeared. The family went to the local police and military and searched relentlessly, but found no trace. Eventually, he said, they got a call from a prosecutor informing them that two bodies had been found in a clandestine grave on a hilltop near a neighboring village, and they immediately agreed to DNA tests.

In the end, the remains were indeed their two sons, presumably victims of one of the drug cartels that routinely terrorize the area.

When they traveled to the regional prosecutor’s office to pick up their sons’ bodies for burial, they were ushered into a room where workers placed two small cardboard boxes on a table, brusquely saying, “Here are your sons.”

The mother shrieked, “Where are the rest of their bodies?” to which one of the workers, according to Garcia, replied, “Lady, if you want the rest of them, you can go up the mountain and finishing digging them out yourself.”

Not wanting a similar fate to befall the rest of her family, they opted to try to make their way to the United States and ended up at Annunciation House.

“That’s who I want to accompany … that’s what energizes me,” Garcia said.

In turn, he said, that’s also what’s bringing the pope.

“The thing that constantly comes out of the mouth of these people is, primero Dios,” he said, literally meaning “God first,” but often used to suggest “if God wills it.”

“They have nothing else, they’re risking everything,” he said. “They believe that if this works out it’s because God’s with them, and for them, the pope being here is a sign that God is with them.”

“They won’t ask anything else from him,” he said. “That’s enough.”

Garcia said he’s under no illusion that the border stop will immediately recalibrate American politics to bring about immigration reform in 2016, but said the pope’s stop serves to correct what he regards as a massive lack of nerve by religious leaders and communities.

“I am adamant that the present state of immigration in the United States is reflective of the greatest failure of all faiths in the country,” he said. “We’ve failed because we have been unwilling to engage it from the pulpit, we’ve been afraid.”

“There isn’t a single church that doesn’t have at its core the idea that you must welcome the stranger in your midst, and we have failed to reflect that,” he said.

In that context, the Catholic in Garcia believes the pontiff’s visit should make clear, once and for all time, that immigration deserves a pride of place among the Church’s “pro-life” concerns.

“What do you think Francis is on the border here to say?” he said. “This is categorically, without question, a pro-life issue.”