Andrea Swiedom Staff Reporter
Last February, Professor of History Anne Marie Wolf sat traumatized before the TV while images flashed across the screen of children, who had just fled the horrors of their homes and crossed the U.S.-Mexico border, sat on bare concrete warehouse floors trapped in chain link cages.
“I was watching T.V. and getting more and more upset about it and I ended up applying that night [to be a volunteer].” Wolf is fluent in Spanish and applied for a volunteer position in El Paso, Texas at the Annunciation House which provides necessities to newly arrived Central American migrants.
The Annunciation House has provided aid to migrants since 1978 and the program has seen a dramatic spike in numbers during the Trump Administration, which has released a series of new border policies in the past three years. Just between Oct. 2018 and April 2019, according to one Washington Post article, the Annunciation House received 50,000 migrants, and projected estimates only continued to rise. As of December, the House said that they take in an average of 100 people per day.
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CPB) saw a total of 101,774 migrants apprehended at points on the Southwest border at the end of 2019, according to their website, as well as 26,681 migrants deemed inadmissible.
In July 2017, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) launched a pilot program in the El Paso, Texas sector authorizing border patrol to separate children from their guardians if they had entered the U.S. illegally.
There were 8,000 separated families, said a report from Amnesty International, by the time this policy was overturned on June 20, 2018. Just a few months prior, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the still current Zero-Tolerance Policy permitting criminal prosecution of anyone crossing the border illegally, regardless of their reasons for making the journey. This was previously a misdemeanor for first-time offenders.
The new policy combined with additional measures from the Trump Administration has resulted in migrants camping out in tent compounds for several months, even a year, as they file asylum paperwork in border towns such as Matamoros, Mexico, on the other side of Brownsville, Texas. These tent compounds pose both a humanitarian and security risk as thousands of people try to maintain a consistent food source, sanitation and ward off human traffickers.
“Nobody would do this, uproot themselves and hang out in a tent on concrete for a year and half,” Wolf said. Those that do cross the border face immediate arrest and are sent to remote detention centers to face prosecution.
“They put these detention centers out in the middle of nowhere because it’s out of sight, out of mind, which makes it difficult because attorneys don’t live in the middle of nowhere,” Wolf said while looking at an aerial photograph on Google of the Stewart Detention Center–an oddly shaped complex in a dense forest 140 miles southwest of Atlanta, GA. “How many immigration attorneys are living out there?”
If migrants are released from these centers, or are fortunate to bypass this step and immediately deemed candidates for asylum by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), they end up at places such as the Annunciation House where volunteers connect them with their sponsor families, provide food, clothing, shelter, transportation money and advice for their next steps.
The average stay for migrants at the House is 36 hours, during which volunteers like Wolf make phone calls to track down sponsor families to support people through the asylum application process. Volunteers also provided what Wolf described as basic hospitality and travel assistance.
“For a lot of people it was the first time they had been in an airport or seen an escalator. The El Paso airport is not a big airport, but not speaking the language and everything…we were just helping them navigate,” Wolf said. “There’s a special line for you to go through if you’ve been released through ICE and we would explain that you’re going to be patted down, you’re not going to be arrested.”
When Wolf returned to Farmington, she began providing translation services to pro bono attorneys working with migrants in detention centers.
“Now I am getting deeper into the reasons why these people were leaving. The gang violence is just out of control, people have had their children killed and raped in front of them, they’ve had dead bodies dumped on their doorstep and told, ‘you’re next.’”
Over the phone, Wolf translates intake interviews between attorneys and detainees to gather their reasons for fleeing their countries. She will sit late at night in her office translating court documents and feeling the weight of each person’s life.
“If they get sent back, they have a pretty good chance of being killed,” Wolf said. “The gangs are really organized and they’re organized across national lines. They know if someone has moved and moved in with their sister in another part of the country because they have their affiliates that are looking for that person.”
Each case comes with an emotional toll, but this has not deterred Wolf from continuing to offer her services. “In the summer I will probably be going somewhere to volunteer.”