Let me describe last Thursday at Casa Nazareth in El Paso, the same day President Trump visited McAllen, another Texas border town.
Start with the basics: Casa Nazareth is a nursing home turned immigrant shelter just across the alley from a former convent that now houses nonprofits’ offices and visiting volunteers. It is one site of Annunciation House, a volunteer-powered charity that has provided refuge to the homeless of this border town for 40 years.
Casa Nazareth is also a small village with a constantly churning population. There are 27 bedrooms, enough beds and cots to hold 110 people, a light-filled dining room with mismatched chairs and a large play room for children. Small rooms along its corridor are stuffed with clean bedding, toiletries and donated clothes. Other rooms hold cleaning supplies and over-the-counter medicines for the illnesses that afflict poor people who have traveled far in hope of finding a better life.
Beyond the basics, there is the routine. It begins with breakfast. At 7 a.m. this day, the El Paso couple who prepare breakfast every Thursday is chattering in Spanish while chopping hotdogs, beating eggs, boiling potatoes, and warming tortillas and beans to create a meal for about 35 guests who stayed the night. Before they eat, the cooks lead the guests in giving thanks to God for the journey, the food, the people who help them. After the meal the guests mop the floors and wipe the tables.
Most of the people eating breakfast are fathers or mothers with one child, maybe two, fleeing poverty, violence, a life without hope. Most come from Guatemala and Honduras, a few from as far away as Brazil and Cuba. Many wear thick black ankle bracelets that allow ICE to track them. Most will leave Casa Nazareth today, the day after they arrived, taking buses or airplanes to join family in small towns and big cities across the country.
Volunteers use a U.S. map posted outside the office to show guests them how far it is to Mississippi, Maryland, Florida, New Hampshire. They do not say how uncertain the immigrants’ future will be once they arrive. On the trip, travelers will carry peanut butter sandwiches, water bottles and a strip of paper that says: “I don’t speak English. Please help me find my airplane or bus.”
Soon after last night’s guests line up for rides to flights and buses, a long, white bus from Immigration and Customs detention pulls up to the door. Out lumber 40 parents and children, their worldly possessions clutched in a plastic bag, their faces blank with weariness and uncertainty.
Most are hungry, so they eat if lunch is ready or have water and fruit if it is not. Thursday’s lunch is brought by women from a Presbyterian church – rice, chicken casserole, tangerines, cookies. After lunch, the new arrivals are registered – names, ages, country of origin and phone numbers for family or friends in the U.S.
Spanish-speaking volunteers — college students, homemakers, retired nuns from across the country – call the contacts and arrange for the families to buy bus or airline tickets. The process is not always easy. Sponsor families must gather money or learn to use credit cards. They must agree to give the new arrivals a home and support until immigration judges decide whether they can stay in the U.S.
After the calls, the new guests are guided to their rooms, which are small, scuffed and clean. Sheets, blankets, pillows, towels, soap, toiletries are gathered, and clean clothes found among the racks stuffed with donated clothes. For the first time in days, sometimes weeks, the guests enjoy the luxury of showers, fresh clothes, beds with sheets, doors they can close.
Dinner is chicken and rice prepared by another church group. Instead of the lunchtime hush, dinner is full of talk and the perfume of clean hair and bodies. A small boy skips to make his new sneakers light up, and his mother softly smiles. A father quietly asks if he can take a second piece of bread and another orange. A dark-haired girl who arrived alone and spent months in ICE shelters has been released because she turned 18. She clutches a stuffed animal and weeps when the crowd celebrates her birthday with a song: ”We wish you congratulations with jasmine flowers.”
This is the invasion President Trump speaks of, his reason for closing the federal government over his demand for a wall. But there is no invasion. In 2017, border-crossing apprehensions were at their lowest point since 1971, while undetected crossings have fallen even more, the New York Times and Department of Homeland Security report.
The crisis is real, but it not the one the President talked about in his Oval Office speech on Tuesday and visit to McAllen on Thursday. It is the crisis of more than 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the country, some for decades, working, raising families, building communities, with no way to become legal residents or citizens. It is the crisis of an overworked, erratic, often punitive immigration system. It is the crisis of politics driven by racism and appeals to base voters rather than labor market needs and compassion.
By tomorrow or the day after, today’s guests at Casa Nazareth will be gone. By the middle of next week, I will be gone as well. But their need for help and for hope will continue. The hospitality will continue. Unfortunately, so will the crisis.