The international language of help—and hope

Students serve as interpreters for migrants at the Mexican border
By: | September 24, 2019
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Xochitl Cervantes is the coordinator of the Sister Dorothy Stang Center for Social Justice and Community Engagement at Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, California.

In May, I led a group of four students from Notre Dame de Namur University in California to the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, where we interpreted for Spanish-speaking women and children who had crossed the border from Mexico, and were seeking asylum.

The trip to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s detention facility was a deeply moving and educational experience for all of us. We learned a great deal about the reasons that drive women to flee their homes and leave everything behind, the conditions that migrants face in order to reach this country, and the asylum process.

Our interpreting was done through the Dilley Pro Bono Project. The Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, the order that founded our university, sponsored our travel. We were accompanied by Sister Denise Curry, who had previously volunteered at the detention center. 

Out of a number of applicants, we chose four students to go on the trip based on their fluency in Spanish and their maturity and ability to deal with potentially difficult psychological material. Three of the participants were students in graduate programs leading to a marriage and family therapy credential. The fourth was an undergraduate who frequently visited family in Latin America and was familiar with the political situation there. 

We prepared for the trip by working with a faculty member in the psychology department to learn how to express our reactions to stressful situations. The faculty member cautioned us to go beyond the word “overwhelmed.” We learned to pinpoint exactly what we were experiencing to better understand and process our feelings.

A crash course in immigration rules

When we arrived in Texas, we got a crash course on the criteria asylum-seekers would be judged on during the “credible fear” interview process. Then we began five days of what felt like nonstop work in a trailer at the detention center. 

We chose four students to go on the trip based on their fluency in Spanish and their maturity and ability to deal with potentially difficult psychological material. 

Every two hours guards led in 15-20 women with their children, and we had only a short time to listen to their stories and counsel them on which of their experiences were legal grounds for seeking asylum. 

We quickly learned that the asylum-seeker rules in the United States are a sometimes arbitrary, and difficult to explain, set of regulations. For example, we were told that if a woman has been targeted by gang members or drug traffickers through death threats and extortion, that may not be grounds for asylum. But if her children are also targeted, then she might be granted asylum. 

Targeted violence against women, including rape, also might not qualify as grounds for asylum if the woman does not meet all the criteria for domestic violence, such as having lived with her abuser.

Almost all the people we met were from the “Northern Triangle” region of Central America that encompasses parts of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Often, we had to tell the women that their experiences would not be considered grounds for asylum unless they had reported the crimes to the police. 

Profound effect on students

In addition to the difficulties of applying for asylum, almost everyone we met with was sick. Some spoke of being detained, still wet from the Rio Grande, in the hielera or “icebox”—a space kept at extremely cold temperatures, where women and children had only mylar blankets to keep them warm.

The trip to the Dilley detention center had a profound effect on the students, and on the faculty, students and staff who heard their stories. One of the volunteer interpreters, a student in the clinical psychology program at Notre Dame de Namur University, is now writing her master’s thesis on trauma and immigrant populations. All of us learned how far and how often our ideals of justice fall short for those seeking safe harbor.

Xochitl Cervantes is the coordinator of the Sister Dorothy Stang Center for Social Justice and Community Engagement at Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, California.