Harriet Tubman is back in the news as the first feature-length movie chronicling the most famous conductor on the Underground Railroad is now available on DVD. Star Cynthia Erivo is nominated for two 2020 Oscars, the only person of color in the acting categories this year. When recalling her passage from the slave state of Maryland to the free commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the real Tubman said, “I had crossed the line. I was free; but there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom. I was a stranger in a strange land.”
The Chicago Immigrant Transit Assistance organization (CITA) is a modern-day Underground Railroad, welcoming and assisting asylum seekers who have been released from detention centers and often brutal conditions. In December 2019, CITA became a program of the Interfaith Community for Detained Immigrants (ICDI), and its volunteers offer material and emotional support while providing transportation and navigation assistance. CITA is looking for volunteers to help on February 8. Learn more below so you can sign up.
About 80,000 people were held in US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) detention centers in 2019. Even after paying large bonds to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), asylum seekers almost never receive advance notice about their release dates so they can’t call their loved ones and make travel arrangements. They arrive at transportation hubs like bus stations, often unable to speak English, without proper seasonal clothing, money, food or information about how to further navigate the system.
Asylum seekers pass through Chicagoland from states across the US southern border like California, Arizona, Texas and Louisiana. Most have scheduled court dates, and are headed for final destinations in other cities. Their forms of ID are often taken and not returned, as is any money they might be carrying. Some people don’t get their money returned, or get reimbursed via check or by a credit card, which they don’t know how to use because they’ve never seen one.
CITA founder Sendy Soto created a program for volunteers to meet asylum seekers to assess new arrivals’ immediate needs and to provide direct services like travel coordination. Volunteers help connect these travelers with their family in the US and their home countries, and distribute hot meals and food packs for the rest of the journey. Volunteers hand out bilingual “Know Your Rights” information, toiletry “comfort kits,” medicine and other health resources, wallets, toys for children, and phones, items all accessed from a nearby storage locker.
Coordinators coach volunteers to never force these donated resources onto new arrivals, to not overwhelm them and to give them the power of choice. The goal is to empower people, since it’s usually been months since they’ve been able to make decisions for themselves.
Asylum seekers arriving in Chicago have included people from the Northern Triangle region of Central America: El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, some of the region’s deadliest war zones. Violence there is also exacerbated by consequences of the climate crisis. CITA has also served people from Nicaragua, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Mexico, Venezuela, Peru, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Haiti, China, Bangladesh, Congo, Nigeria, and Cameroon. Since December, CITA volunteers have assisted more than 1,200 asylum seekers, and many of those helped say their interactions with the organization are the first time they were treated with kindness, dignity and respect since entry into the US.
After initial training, CITA volunteers shadow experienced greeters for two shifts then commit to two, two-hour shifts per month. The training prepares volunteers how to identify and assist new arrivals, to connect them with donations and services, and to navigate the ecosystem of the bus terminal.
Soto recalls the arrival of pregnant Maria from California via Dallas. She stopped in Chicago on her way to Pittsburgh. She’d eaten no food the entire trip.
“We have to restore what’s been stripped from them,” Soto said. “And they have the right to live in this country until their cases are heard.”
Today’s Underground Railroad passes through bus stations. Harriet Tubman’s last words were “I go to prepare a place for you.” Volunteers are needed to welcome and prepare places for asylum seekers recently released from detention centers. CITA and ICDI will provide training for individuals and groups on Saturday, February 8, from 11am to 12:30pm, at American Red Cross, 2200 W. Harrison St. Speaking Spanish is welcome but not required. Register to attend here, and email with questions. To provide monetary or material support, visit the ICDI donation portal.