Closing Nazareth: On Shelter

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When I set out, the sky is still night. And by night I mean only one thing happens at a time. Only the glow of the moon, only the faint outline of the mountain, only Rio Grande rolling ahead straight, only the rise and fall of the final crest of the Rocky Mountains. At the train tracks, it is only the train passing. At the stop light, it is only one red gleam. Crossing the freeway bridge the light is widening, the lanes are multiple, the night is splintering over Juárez into the complicated dawn.

The border shelter is housed in the disused nursing home. One overnight volunteer sleeps in the clinic bed after all the surfaces have been bleached down. The long hallways are dark apart from one fluorescent bulb outside her door. In the rooms, cots are stuffed between slanting medical beds and the bowing curtain rods are flung over with found blankets. Whatever dreams are being dreamt are held in shelter.

Perhaps the dreamers dream about that day, about being locked in a darkened ICE bus and dropped off here from immigration detention. Perhaps they dream of last night, when the father held his daughter against his chest in the freezing hielera. Perhaps they dream of the sleepless camion through Mexico, or of family left behind. The older brother dreams of his two younger siblings who stayed when he went.

As I open the door from the alleyway, our worlds are becoming multiple at once. Whatever lands dreams arrived from are closing their nocturnal doors and the dreamers are greeted by the practical matters of the day. When will we be leaving to continue on our journey, and how? The Sisters from Philadelphia are wheeling in a cart of milk and cereal and a metal tray of beans. They are setting out rows of Styrofoam bowls.

One comes to Nazareth with no anticipation. Nazareth opened in 2014 with the surge of asylum-seeking families arriving at the border, one of the first emergency shelters in El Paso offsite from Annunciation House. In the early months of 2019, Nazareth received thirty to eighty of up to nine hundred souls released in the El Paso sector every day. Families are dropped off by ICE after being detained, or as of late March released directly by Border Patrol.

Guests have presented themselves as asylum seekers at ports of entry or to Border Patrol between ports of entry, and they are being released to stay with a sponsor while their asylum case is heard. They arrive with no food, no money or means of communication. Whatever they had leaving Guatemala or Honduras was taken from them in Mexico, whatever remained was confiscated at the US border. We call to ask sponsors to buy a ticket for departure. When a family leaves we hand them a bag of sandwiches for a long journey by bus.

In the morning over breakfast, I take down all the departure slips tacked to the wall in the office and bring them into the comedor. I say, Attention please! The sun rose beautifully today. We hope that you all slept well. It has been such a privilege to meet each of you. We wish you the best on your journey. I will read the names of everyone who has a ticket to leave today. We ask that you collaborate with us, that you leave your room as you found it, that you take all your stories with you.

The stories of the sheets: please put them in the laundry at the end of the hallway. The stories of the wastebasket: go in the basurero by the entrance. For the stories of your documents: you can find a folder in the office. The stories of your dirty clothes: you cannot leave them here due to hygiene laws. You will take them in a bag to the bus station or airport, and before your flight away from the border, you can find a place to throw them out.

When we clean the rooms we always find stories left behind. The story of the bloody tissue, the story of the broken toy, the story of the wet socks pushed into the corner, the baby powder on the bed stand, the orange peel in the sink, the story of the t-shirt ripped to shreds. Please ensure there are no stories forgotten under the mattresses or in the closet. There will be others coming today, I say. They will be coming with new stories.

Once at the shelter, migrants cut off numbered bracelets given by Border Patrol.

Often the new migrants arrive during lunchtime. Sometimes it is just before the church mothers come in to serve chicken and rice. In this case the refugees who had arrived the day before organize themselves in a line in the hallway to let the newly arrived eat first, knowing what thin broth they have had for a week in detention. Sometimes lunch is already being served, when out the window a cord of families come walking around the building. The Sisters run into the kitchen to bring more caldo de pollo.

Sometimes the ICE officer will enter and ask if he can drop off seventeen, if he can drop off forty-seven. He will line up families by the concrete wall in the alley and read off the names. Yesterday’s guests open the door for today’s guests.

No somos la migra is the first thing we say. We are not immigration. Like la migra, we are people migrated here longer ago, or whose parents came to this land, or whose family has always been here before the border crossed them. But we are a Sister from Iowa, a Brother from Jalisco, a nurse from Colorado, a high school student from El Paso, a mother from Juárez, a teacher from Massachusetts.

You are free here, we say, as the parents clutch a bundle of cables in bubble wrap—their only possession, the charging cords for the GPS ankle monitor. You are free here, we say, as the parents scan their documents which criminalize travel outside of a seventy-five-mile range of their destination. We are here to help you on the next step of your journey.

The guests of the day come with one story, the story of the ride on the ICE bus and the arrival at the shelter. As the afternoon goes on, the stories become many. There is Jorge whose cousin will not in fact receive him. Yolanda whose father can’t get through an immigration checkpoint to pick her up. Ana whose husband will wait until Friday payday to buy the cross-country ticket. Emilia who was separated from her granddaughter at the border and who now clutches at her chest.

We take down confirmation numbers and tear off slips of paper announcing departures. We hand them to the children who run through the hall and bring the good news. Oscar arrives to drive a family to the Greyhound station and yells out the names. Lourdes is deaf and we point to Lopez, her six-year-old son who has translated for her all the way here.

An off-duty Border Patrol officer comes in the door to donate clothes. The social worker calls with an update about the child in quarantine for mumps. Gloria asks for a hair tie, then says she is three months pregnant and did not eat for a week in detention. The phone rings and it’s a cousin saying my family was supposed to arrive yesterday and I waited at the bus station and they never came. We only know they left from here, is all we can say.

Outside, clothes are hanging to dry along pipes, stone walls, and the spikes of yucca plants. In the afternoon burn of the Chihuahuan sun, the light scrambles to glint off whatever it finds and suddenly there are two suns, three suns. It is the glowering need refracting off the staid limitations of this moment, and it is suddenly too much and too hot.

 Detention conditions are so cold, migrants sometimes arrive with clothes still wet days later.

The tarde is the cracking of this warped and lashing place against the day. We are emptied in the vexed and vexing unrelenting land, and I come to hate so ferociously the blindness of constant motion. I leave the shelter to cry into the faceless light, cry gobbling tears of overheated hilarity and the roof of my mouth is nonetheless dry by the desert which only ever takes.

There is a strangeness to staying amidst constant shifting. Is this how the mountain feels, as the light of the day moves across its shoulder blades? Is this how the grandparents feel? We’ve been here since dawn’s quiet and we watch the people come and leave and we await the leader of the afternoon shift, who comes always, just later than we’d hoped. We can never pass it all off; we know they’ll have to discover the lumps of clothes left behind that we haven’t picked up, and all the blatant gracelessness.

And yet the whole thing churns on with that nagging human capacity for profound decency, for disculpe señor, and for eminent humility. The whole thing churns on within the cackling ridiculousness of a world system which lands so heavily in our extended arms.

It is finally time for dinner and we gather in the comedor and pray to the santísima María and the Padre en el Cielo. We say thank you for all who are helping us on our journeys. Thank you for our families and friends who await us. Thank you for those who we will befriend who we do not even yet know.

Arturo quietly eats chicken and his six-year-old daughter spoons pudding. After seconds, Arturo begins to tell a story. We crossed the river from Juárez on Monday, fifty all together who grew in number as we went. It had taken three days to get from Honduras, and our shoes got wet in the low river. On the northern riverbank, we waited for los verdes to come for us. Night fell and parents hugged their children in the sand, and we kept a lookout but Border Patrol didn’t arrive.

On Tuesday morning we gave a twenty to a young man to cross back to Juárez to bring us food and water. We prayed to a God who had brought us this far, pleading that if God wanted us to live safely in the United States, He would send Border Patrol to collect us from this forsaken stretch between the river and the fence. We had to show los verdes that we were peaceful. At last on Wednesday morning they came for most of us, and they brought us here.

All day long, people tell of how they came in. To get in we had to crawl. To get in we ran, we hid under a car, then we ran again. To get in we jumped, and she rolled her ankle. To get in we waited. When we arrive in the next world, in the world beyond this world, we will be filled with stories of how we got in.

The next world is not the world that will deport us, not the world that will deny us, not the world that will exploit us. I have tried five times to get into the next world, Jose will say with Dalia on his shoulders. Thanks to God I walked down the street in the next world and the señora pointed me here, I didn’t expect to find a place like this in the next world. This is my first time in the next world, Susana will say, eight months pregnant. I carried my child into the next world with me.

Some have declared themselves to be in the next world, have sent a voice message to an uncle saying I’ve arrived. And the uncle, who is already in the next world, says well there’s still a long way to go. The pregnant teenage couple asks for a taxi to Washington, DC and we say too far and tack up the map. We talk of distance in terms of Greyhound days, but we say it should be tranquilo. We say there will be waiting with escalas, and there may be atrazos that delay them on their journey to the next world. But there will be someone waiting when we get there.

When the details of the day become too many, we gather by the maps and talk in different ways about vastness. Felipe is leaning with one hand against the wall, rolling his gaze across the continent. ¿Y ahora dónde estamos? El Paso is blotched out from fingers pointing aquí. And Virginia? The hijo extends his arms wide, measuring the coming week by wingspan. Pero está lejos. How many days?

One day for the Texas oil field, for the vast desolation. One day for the bayous (and we trace our fingers along the Mississippi, imagining the mighty catchment of aguas from east and west). One more day for the Appalachian foothills, for the deep South, for the world turning truly green. Gloria finds New Jersey and makes the sign of the cross that her cuñada pays for a plane ticket and doesn’t send them by bus.

After dinner is the holy time of using the Red Cross phone to make international calls. Three minutes no más. That will be more than enough, the father answers, to tell my wife that I’m alive. He unfolds a light plastic bag and fishes out a softened rumpled scrap of paper with a phone number scrawled. He holds the sacred paper reverently. The next in line brings her son who squeezes his eyes tight reciting the number he has remembered all throughout the journey. Oye, she says, ya llegamos. We’re here.

Carmen is feverish and after giving pastillas I walk her back to her room. Carmen arrived with her daughter on her back in a fabric sling, her daughter who is eight. Carmen holds her daughter like a baby to feed her beans for dinner, her daughter who has never walked. I kneel and pull a sheet over the plastic mattress, I bear the daughter down onto the bed, arranging her hips below her shoulders and her knees below her hips. Carmen lies back and I put cool towels on her feet and forehead. Sliding my back down against the door jamb, I sing. “Here in this land / I call my home / And through these hills / Where I roam / I hear a voice / Deep in my bones / I ain’t a stranger no more.”

We spend our days with gente who all want something we can’t possibly give them, I realize in the sudden stillness of the night. Who want many things we can give them, but who ultimately want something we can never give them. We can never give them what they left everything to look for. But we can give them ourselves (we can give each other ourselves), which we set out not expecting to find.

In the empty office, I turn off the flip phones which have rung themselves tired. I finger the Post-it notes on the room chart which peel away, already preparing to leave. Each sticky has a name and a room number, and at last I know that each person is in their place. I know what day they arrived, and what time they will leave. I know what they’re waiting for or who they’re waiting on. It’s 10:15 p.m. and the shift is over, and I stay just to stand in this pool of momentarily knowing where each soul is sleeping, after the long road strung between certainties and the departure tomorrow to another not knowing.

The guests in their incomprehensible journeys are nevertheless more known to me than I am to them. Do I call you señora or señorita, Oscar asks. ¿Y vive aca? Do you live here? After the despedida at the end of the day, the words loop in my mind. The asks, tales, tonterias, comentarios, exhortations, uncertainties, and knowings of the day whispered, wished, re-announcing that someone still needs sheets and the child todavía está caliente. Well, I haven’t always lived here, I say. Pero ahora (the pedidas encircle, taking rest en mis sueños) I live here, por el momento, sí.

Often when it seems that everyone has arrived for the day, when there are just enough sheets and razors, more arrive. Once ICE dropped off a bus of women in the middle of the night, so María pulled out peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and set blankets on the floor of the playroom. Then at last came the day of certainty that there would be no new arrivals.

El Paso and Ciudad Juárez

Nazareth was closing. Nazareth functioned for five years in half of an under-code nursing home, and the nursing home finally needed the space back. The guest servants came to Nazareth as somebody’s wife, somebody’s priest, somebody’s cousin’s friend, somebody’s teacher’s acquaintance, somebody’s out of town sister. Angelica from St. Mark’s came each Friday morning to serve breakfast; Lisa came in scrubs every day after work. The site allowed us to become known to each other.

On that last day in late March, there was only the directionality of departure from temporary shelter, of reunion with mothers and sisters and brothers-in-law. There was no one new to notify that Seidy had been released from immigration detention, and no one new to tell that due to a paperwork error, Mario could not leave El Paso yet. The volunteers spoke the 1-800 number for Greyhound Buses into the flip phones for sponsors for the last time, and wrote down the final confirmation number for the ticket to New Jersey.

This Sabbath seemed a prompt for rejoicing: This is what’s emerged from years of sheltering, and at last it’s done! We made it!, the clarity of the day seemed to say. Everyone already has a place to stay. Everyone has their toilet paper and socks. They don’t need a trash bag for dirty clothes from weeks of travel through Mexico. They have their rice and beans.

It was a day out of place. It was a holiday, a ceremonial time. The afternoon was long and gleeful because it was not swallowed by the unexpected. No one needed to go to the hospital for strep throat or chicken pox. No one came to ask where their younger sister or grandson were, and why they had been separated by immigration at the border. Everyone already knew that here you can drink the tap water.

The teenagers folded the Red Cross cots away. The little girls picked through the children’s books in English and took the ones with the brightest pictures. The boys played fútbol outside laughing in the sun. The mothers hung the clothes to dry. A father sat on a park bench looking out over Juárez and thinking. No one new arrived.

And no one would arrive tomorrow. It was as if Juan would not be shot in the back in Mexico and survive. It was as if Yesenia would not have to flee extortion in El Salvador, as if Edilio’s coffee crop was not failing from climate disruption in Honduras, as if David’s political protest in Nicaragua was not leading to paramilitary death threats. It was as if millions were not forced to escape US-sponsored violence seeking safety.

Or perhaps Yesenia, Edilio, David, and Juan were still on their way. But it was as if refugees were no longer being dropped off at a shelter by ICE after days or weeks in US detention after recounting trauma in an interview on credible fear after sleeping on the ground in the cold waiting to be picked up by Border Patrol after braving the coyote’s journey through Mexico in the back of trucks or buses.

It was as if the need for temporary shelter for people who arrived with nothing in their hands had been made obsolete. It was as if at last the border let families be together without detention cells and razor wire and waiting. It was as if there were a lawful path to work and be in community in safety in this country.

It was almost as if the shelter were not dependent on the under-code section of the Nazareth Living Care Center, which had decided to reclaim the site to implement renovations—fixing the slanting medical beds, unclogging toilets and sinks, patching leaks and crumbles. The volunteers filled a truck with blankets and used clothing and shampoo from the shelter, and it was almost as if they weren’t just taking it all to another refugee shelter that didn’t yet have blankets or clothes or shampoo.

In the spring months, the number of refugees arriving at the southern border felt infinite, up to nine hundred souls released in El Paso every night. In closing Nazareth, it was almost as if there had been a resolution to the heartbreaking endlessness. It was almost as if the shelter were not relocating to a bigger warehouse.

For years, the El Paso community had received migrants to shelter in houses, in the storefront Baptist church, in the parish hall by the highway. The hosts were families and tight-knit church communities. When Nazareth closed, the volunteers were transferred to the industrial warehouse opening in mid-April, the first centralized, city-supported shelter. The blustery hanger would fill with five hundred Red Cross cots and blankets, and the sprawling vacant portions held space for thousands more. The showers in a tractor trailer would be provided by Salvation Army disaster relief services. It would be an entirely new scale of response to the unprecedented number of asylum-seeking families arriving in El Paso.

We missed Nazareth. Nazareth was the known place. We missed encountering refugees not in general, but in the known particulars. Guests arrived with shoelaces removed by immigration, sneakers tied closed with strips of mylar blankets. On any given day, we could say where the shoelaces were and where the backup shoelaces were and where the alternate materials that could be made into even more shoelaces were. It was the place where we could make a call about the delay in processing Marcos’s papers because we knew he was here last week when the mornings were still cool, and the week before when the mornings became dark with Daylight Savings. It was the place where Lil could say you look tired now or Lalo could say your energy is back. It was the place of watching.

Shoelaces are removed by immigration.

The row of chairs in the entryway was like a Latin American park bench. Do you need something? we would ask. No, not me, estoy nomás pasandolo. When we crossed the alleyway to the convent kitchen, the door to the shelter would swing locked. To get back in, we would knock, wave, smile, nod, and beckon. It was a brief moment of role reversal, of wondering who would let us in, and how they would greet us. Someone from the park bench would urgently leap up, saying pase, come.

Beth said it wasn’t until the refugees arrived that she found a place in El Paso. We were being hosted. We were hosted by the need, by the possibility of relief. We were hosted by the guests ready to let us in, and we were hosted in their joy. What good world is this, where we rush to let the newcomer in, and rush to bear whatever they arrive carrying.

One day the Guatemalans bought six dozen eggs and scrambled them Guatemalan style with tomatoes. We were washing dishes from serving arroz to a hundred people, and cleaning a pot of lemongrass tea. Have you eaten? Luis gave up his seat and María scooped a plate. I eat these eggs every morning, she said, humming. Sit.

When we miss Nazareth, we miss this reclamation of equivalence. Of eating across from each other the same rice and beans, the same sweet tea. Of passing together the same time and by the same map tracing tracks ahead. After treating patients in the clinic for four hours we feel the same scratch in our throats and wonder, are we not all one body? Such a human wish, to all of the sudden not be apart.

The Rio Grande as seen from the Paso del Norte International Bridge.

When Nazareth closed, there were stories left behind that had not been seen in months. The stories were in the crevices—the dirty Q-tip, the Guatemalan identification card, the folded scrap of paper with a phone number scrawled. These are the stories that had made it to us, that had been carried from Q’ekchi into Spanish, from el otro lado into este pais. At the border they took my wedding ring, my cell phone, the picture of my family, and my blood pressure medication, Carlos tells. But at the border they could not take my story, this resistance against the fate of disappearance.

When Nazareth closed, it had been an honor. To hold in proximity, to give and be given belonging. When Nazareth closed, we stood in front of no one saying please do not leave your stories, it would make for too much to hold. We stood with the open-handed absence which finally allowed for a telling.

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Photographs taken and provided courtesy of author.


Honora Spicer is a writer and experiential educator living in El Paso, TX. She serves migrants through Annunciation House. Find more at @borderlands_education and honoraspicer.com. More from this author →