It was still dark on a recent Friday morning when Joan DeWitt, 79, weaved her way through the crowd at the Greyhound station in downtown Atlanta, carryings bags of food, blankets, and hygiene kits.
The volunteer grandmother was there to give a helping hand to bleary-eyed migrants freshly arrived from cities near the Mexican border. Since 2018, a local chapter of the nonprofit Grannies Respond, the group DeWitt volunteers through, has greeted newcomers at area bus stations. They offer humanitarian aid and, for those whose final destination is in-state, information about Georgia.
The group also goes by the name “Atlanta Transit Angels.” Their role gives them a front-row seat to the effect of changing federal policies around asylum and border enforcement – including a recent crackdown by the Biden administration in response to a record-breaking surge in migrant apprehensions in 2022.
DeWitt doesn’t speak Spanish but she has learned several useful phrases to communicate with newcomers, including comida, or “food.” That’s what she offers the migrants at the station – cups of noodle soup are especially popular – alongside hygiene items and over-the-counter medication.
It was 7:15 a.m. when she spots a woman from Mexico who accepts her food and tells her she need a place to stay.
A national movement
In the last two calendar years, Grannies Respond helped a total of 7,255 migrants across metro Atlanta. On Friday, that included taking the phone number of the Mexican migrant, to connect her with nonprofits that offer temporary housing.
“We’ve been able to do a lot of good work and help a lot people,” DeWitt said.
DeWitt was part of a caravan of grandmothers from around the nation who traveled to the Mexican border in 2018 to protest the news that immigration authorities were separating migrant children from their parents. That movement wound up being the catalyst for the creation of Grannies Respond, with volunteers aiding traveling migrants around the nation.
Coming to the U.S. in search of economic opportunity – the reason many Americans believe is causing migrants to seek entry into the country – is no grounds for asylum. The threat of gang violence is another significant factor in emigration, particularly from Central America. But that too falls short of systemically making migrants eligible for asylum protections, which are reserved for migrants who are able to prove a well-founded fear of persecution in their home countries due to factors such as race or religion. In fiscal year 2021, just 37% of asylum seekers won their case and were allowed to stay, up from a Trump-era low of 29% in fiscal year 2020.
On the grannies’ radar is May 11. That’s the scheduled end of a federal policy that has allowed authorities to quickly turn most migrants away at the border since the start of the pandemic.
“I assume we are going to have big numbers again,” DeWitt said.
‘I love what I do’
To know when to be present at the station, DeWitt checks for the arrival times of buses that depart from key cities in border states, such as Houston or San Antonio. On this Friday, as is her custom, she utters a quick prayer before getting out of her car, asking for protection and to be able to be helpful to those in need.
“I get so excited when I go down here and I get real hyped up because it’s the joy of my life. I love what I do,” she said.
DeWitt explained she is able to distinguish migrants from other passengers because she recognizes the bags or blankets that many receive during time spent in government custody after crossing the border. She wears a T-shirt that says ‘Grannies Respond’ and the Spanish translation, ‘Abuelas Responden.’
According to Betty Jo Stevens, another Grannies Respond volunteer in Atlanta, most migrants getting off buses here are passing through on their way to join relatives or friends in other states such as Florida, New York, Virginia or the Carolinas. But she said volunteers are more frequently coming across migrants who plan to stay in Georgia.
“I think we are growing as a place to come to. Not the majority, but more than there used to be, because of the economy,” she said. “There’s so many jobs here right now.”
The number of migrants Grannies Respond interact with at bus stations has seesawed over time, with arrivals being sensitive to changes in border enforcement and asylum policy. There have been many of those this year alone, as the Biden administration has moved to curtail a rise of unlawful entries, as desperate migrants make attempt after attempt to squeeze into the country from Mexico.
In January, the administration unveiled a new policy designed to quickly expel crossers from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela, all nations that accounted for large numbers of the recent migrant influx. In tandem with that move, immigration authorities created a parole program allowing citizens of those nations to temporarily stay in the U.S. if they have a financial sponsor already in the country. Since then, overall unlawful crossings have fallen by 97%.
A potentially more drastic restriction was announced last month. The proposed rule would make migrants who cross the border unlawfully ineligible for asylum. It would also block the entry of anyone who failed to first seek protection in the countries they traveled through to reach the U.S. If the rule change is put in place as planned at the conclusion of a 30-day public feedback period, those who attempt to come in violation of the rule would be barred from re-entering for five years.
Immigration advocates angered by that announcement were quick to denounce Biden again following reports that the administration is considering detaining migrant families who cross the border illegally. He had previously put an end to a policy of sending families to holding centers when he assumed office. The new measures are being put in place in anticipation of a potential new influx of migrants in early May. That’s when a Trump-era rule that effectively sealed the border shut to most would-be crossers is set to lapse.
On occasion, the grannies do more than help out at bus stations.
Last summer, amid an influx of destitute Venezuelans to Atlanta, Stevens hosted a family of migrants for one week in her own home. Since then, they’ve managed to find work and their own place to stay.
“They were absolutely amazing people,” said Stevens, 76. “The [migrants] I have met are amazing human beings who have been through a lot.”
If bigger numbers of migrants do materialize, DeWitt and Stevens said more Grannies Respond volunteers would be welcome. The local chapter shrunk during the pandemic. And just five or six volunteers feel comfortable taking on shifts near the Greyhound station.
DeWitt and Stevens noted having grandchildren isn’t actually a requirement to join the group, although the pair has plenty of their own.
DeWitt has eight grandkids. Stevens has six. Do they mind sharing their grandmothers with migrants in need?
“They don’t have a choice,” Stevens said.