Every morning, Bonita Amaro and her sister Yolanda Sanchez arrive at the Greyhound bus station in Sacramento to greet asylum seekers passing through on their way to sponsors’ homes across the country. The two women come armed with care kits containing basic necessities, as well as blankets, toys, and fresh, warm foods, such as the burritos and sandwiches that Sanchez prepares.
“They have so much dignity, so much gratitude. We get hugs, ‘Dios te bendiga, God bless you,’” Amaro says of the asylum-seekers. “In that moment, we are not Republican or Democrat. Not religious. We don’t talk politics with them. We’re just humanitarians.”
These tías, abuelas, and other advocates call themselves the Overground Railroad. And just as sisters Amaro and Sanchez are doing in Sacramento, each day dozens of them show up at Greyhound bus stations in far-flung connecting cities where asylum seekers, released from detention, are making their way across the country to sponsors’ homes. With grandmotherly gentleness, often speaking in a familiar language, these volunteers are waiting.
Overground Railroad, a reference to Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad, is an offshoot project of Grannies Respond/Abuelas Responden, which emerged this summer when a caravan of grandmother activists journeyed from New York to the southern U.S. border to bring comfort to asylum seekers there – and attention to their plight. They protested and demonstrated in cities along their 2,000-mile route. By the time they reached McAllen, Texas, the number of caravanning “grandmothers” had swelled to more than 200. The idea to provide ongoing support as asylum seekers transition to sponsor homes grew from that.
Many of the people being helped now were part of an earlier caravan of refugees and other migrants who journeyed from Central America and Mexico early this summer. This group and the subsequent separation of parents from children under the Trump administration’s Zero Tolerance immigration policy had triggered a global outcry.
Each day, immigration authorities release hundreds of them from detention centers across the country. Tagged with ankle bracelets, they have little else. They must then make their way to cities where sponsors live and where they will await hearings in immigration court to determine their eligibility for asylum.
When Amaro and Sanchez first began going to the Sacramento Greyhound station in September, they weren’t quite sure how they would identify asylum seekers from among the tangle of other travelers.
Volunteers who help the families at Greyhound stations at the start their journeys often hand them brown envelopes that outline their itineraries. But Amaro says she seldom sees those envelopes.
Rather, she, Yolanda, and the other volunteers look for those travelers wearing a bewildered look, a tip from a Latina janitor who works at the Greyhound station. “She told us, ‘You’ll know them. People from here walk in confidently, they look up at the schedule or get on their phones. The asylum seekers will come in and stop at the door. They don’t know where to go or what to do.’”
An ankle bracelet might be visible, Amaro says, but “they never, ever have luggage.”
Overground Railroad teams now operate in six cities and may expand as it adds new volunteers, says Catherine Cole, national organizer for the project. Not all cities have coverage, and even in the six cities not all arriving buses can be met, she says. Local teams collect donated goods, raise funds to buy new supplies, and organize schedules around arrivals and layovers at local stations.
In New Orleans, for example, a well-organized crew shops on Saturdays for care-kit supplies, and then members gather on Monday nights for kit-making parties that sometimes include other volunteers from the community.
“I think Grannies Respond touches the hearts of people, and that has been a big deal and a big draw,” Cole says. “I get one to five emails a day from people who want to help: ‘I’m a nurse in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. How can I help?’” She cites a retired physician from New Jersey and a church group in Kansas City.
The Overground Railroad is one piece of a broad network of legal, humanitarian, and faith organizations along the border and across the country working to address the complex needs of refugees and asylum seekers – from legal defense work, court accompaniment, and bearing witness to shelter and family sponsorship. Many groups are raising funds so they can give people a little cash for their journeys or to purchase bus, train, or airline tickets to get them to sponsors.
The Grannies’ project is modeled after work by the McAllen group, Angry Tías and Abuelas, which early on began helping asylum seekers released from detention successfully start their journeys, writing out schedules on those brown envelopes, making sure people got on the right buses, and providing basic supplies for the trips, including appropriate clothes and shoes.
Amaro says that by the time asylum seekers reach Sacramento, having transferred in Los Angeles, most have been traveling for days.
“We introduce ourselves and tell them that what we are offering is free,” Amaro says. “We are greeting and feeding them – offering them something warm to eat and drink and putting them on the next bus.”
Mostly, she says, they are “relieved and grateful to know that people are welcoming them.” More often than not, they are hungry. “They have no money and have not eaten in days,” she says. What little they have, they share among each other—no longer strangers after all that time together.
“We show them on a map where they’ve been and where they’re going. … They have no idea.”
As the weather has turned cold, they’ve been bringing extra blankets and jackets donated by the people in the community. And always, something for the children, Amaro says. “They all like Etch a Sketch. So we always make sure we have Etch a Sketches and Beanie Babies. And coloring books.”
Sometimes the asylum seekers share their personal stories. Amaro recalls the mother who was going to see the son she’d not seen in three years. And the man whose sister left when he was an infant and whom he was going to meet for the first time.
“Their stories make us cry; they just touch our hearts,” she says.
Sharon Kutz-Mellem organizes a group of about 20 Overground Railroad volunteers in Louisville, Kentucky. She also has been touched by those stories.
Some, she wrote in a Facebook post, are beautiful, like the time “six or seven children lined up to give several Grannies hugs and gracias for the snacks and toys we had given them.” Others are frustrating, like the time a mother arrived on a 30-degree day, wearing a slight T-shirt and flip-flops. One of our volunteers offering her own shoes “moved me to tears.”
All their stories fill her with hope, she says, “because of their hope.”
Kutz-Mellem is a former Presbyterian minister who has worked with refugees for more than two decades and traveled with the Grannies Respond caravan to the border this summer. The faces of the people she met there, she says, “have been etched in my heart forever.”
That might help explain why in October when she received a frantic call about an asylum seeker who needed a place to stay, she agreed without hesitation to sponsor the single woman. But then she learned the woman had a 4-year-old son.
“I approached my sweet husband to ask if one more mattered. He says, ‘Of course not. Somebody has to show some fucking humanity in our sick country.’”
Now Kutz-Mellem helps the young family find their way in a new city – from assisting them with medical and immigration appointments to helping enroll the 5-year-old in preschool.
“Not one dime of taxpayer money is going to support this family. We are doing it all. … We are not wealthy. My husband drives a truck for UPS. I am a retired pastor with a small pension and a Social Security check. Sometimes it is necessary to do the right thing, to heal a broken world.”
Mother and son, she says, are “a delightful part of our family.” And her two grandsons have become wonderful big brothers to the boy. She posts sweet moments of their home life on Facebook – of her little house guest on a trampoline or making tortillas or chocolate chip cookies.
His mother has a degree in business administration that is sure to take her far, and she’s working to learn English, Kutz-Mellem says. “The decision to welcome them was easy for my husband and me,” she says. “For us, this is a way to resist in the most humane of ways.”