At South Loop bus station, volunteers see signs of increased immigration

A group of volunteers who hand out snacks and toiletries to immigrants coming from detention centers near the southern U.S. border have noticed an increase in activity in recent weeks.

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Colin McCormick poses for a portrait outside the Greyhound station at 620 W Harrison St in South Loop, Wednesday, April 21, 2021.

Colin McCormick, the program coordinator for Chicago Immigrant Transit Assistance, outside the Greyhound station at 620 W. Harrison St.

Anthony Vázquez/Sun-Times

Armed with snacks and toiletries, Colin McCormick and Amanda Treviño scanned the bustling bus terminal in the South Loop on a recent morning and spotted a mother carrying an infant and trailed by three small boys.

McCormick and Treviño, part of the Chicago Immigrant Transit Assistance, approached her and confirmed the family had been recently released from immigration detention near the southern border. One of the small boys who had been crying started to giggle as McCormick showed him a stuffed dog while Treviño arranged for a ride to take the family to the northwest suburbs.

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The family was among about a dozen immigrants the group made contact with on a recent Tuesday morning at the Greyhound bus station. Volunteers, who go to the station daily, have noticed a recent uptick in the number of immigrants passing through Chicago, said McCormick, the program coordinator. The Chicago area is the final destination for some of these immigrants, but most are traveling to other parts of the Midwest, he said.

In February, volunteers spoke to 20 to 30 immigrants on average each week. In recent weeks, the number of people the group is coming across weekly has increased to 50 to 70, McCormick said. The group greeted 52 people the week of April 11.

“It’s sort of been a curve of growth since mid-February,” McCormick said. “I don’t see any signs of it slowing.”

Clothing for immigrants arriving in Chicago from the border at a storage unit South Loop, Wednesday, April 21, 2021.

The Chicago Immigrant Transit Assistance program gives clothing and toiletries to immigrants arriving in the city from the southern U.S. border.

Anthony Vázquez/Sun-Times

The number of immigrants who were apprehended or surrendered at the southern border increased from 101,028 in February to 172,331 in March, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The figures include people stopped by border officials who were deported, denied entry or taken into immigration custody. More than half of those people included in the March figure were single adults.

The percentage of unaccompanied minors and families grew the most from February to March, said Ariel Ruiz Soto, a policy analyst with the Washington-based think tank Migration Policy Institute. Economic troubles caused by the pandemic and recent hurricanes could be driving some of the immigration, said Ruiz Soto, who noted increases in immigration have happened under the past three presidents.

“What we see at the border is a symptom of a regional crisis that continues to be overlooked by the regional countries until we have a more sustainable regional migration system,” he said.

Chicago Immigrant Transit Assistance, now part of the Interfaith Community for Detained Immigrants, started as a grassroots effort in 2018. Earlier this year, volunteers resumed daily visits to the bus station after their efforts were slowed by the coronavirus pandemic. The group communicates with volunteers in other cities doing similar work to figure out what supplies to take to the bus station, McCormick said.

Colin McCormick closes a storage unit used to store clothing and other items for immigrants transported to Chicago from the border, Wednesday, April 21, 2021.

Colin McCormick closes a storage unit used to keep clothing and other items for immigrants arriving in Chicago from the southern U.S. border.

Anthony Vázquez/Sun-Times

Volunteers don’t ask about the specifics of a person’s immigration case, but they do give out bilingual “know your rights” cards for immigrants. The group has only come across adults and families at the bus station, McCormick said.

At the bus station, McCormick and other volunteers arrive before sunrise and look for clues — shoes without laces or no luggage — to identify those coming from the border. It’s how McCormick could tell Ariel was among a group who had just arrived on a recent morning.

Ariel, who asked that his full name not be published because of the uncertainty of his immigration case, said he left his native Nicaragua in February because of political instability. He traveled through Central America and Mexico before he reached the U.S. border and was detained for 17 days, he said.

His license to drive a taxi in Nicaragua was suspended after he displayed the country’s flag on his car, Ariel said. The flag has become a symbol of opposition to President Daniel Ortega’s government. To Ariel, it seemed like protests and dissent were no longer allowed in his native country.

“It’s the flag of my country,” Ariel said in Spanish. “When you carry that flag, it’s a message for our country to change back to a democracy.”

A human rights group earlier this year warned that Ortega’s government was limiting opposition as he faces an election this year, the Associated Press reported.

The group in Chicago gave Ariel a change of clothes and a cellphone with a one-month service plan because his phone was damaged by water. He was only in Chicago for a few hours and hoped to eventually reach South Dakota to reunite with his brother who paid for his bus ticket.

“I feel well,” said Ariel, who had been traveling by bus for four days when he arrived in Chicago. “Thanks to God, I’ve achieved the purpose I had.”

McCormick said the group would like to expand its services, but the group relies heavily on volunteers. Treviño initially volunteered with the group as part of her graduate program at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

She continued coming back weekly, going through hectic mornings where volunteers might have only a few minutes or hours with those passing through the station.

For Treviño, she walks away feeling like she accomplished something, and she’s reminded of her parent’s own immigration story.

“I wish people could understand even a small amount of what these people go through to get to this point to us,” Treviño said. “Sometimes it’s heartbreaking, sometimes it’s so powerful.”

Items that are included in bags for immigrants arriving in Chicago from the border at a storage unit South Loop, Wednesday, April 21, 2021.

Items bagged and waiting for immigrants arriving in Chicago from the southern U.S. border.

Anthony Vázquez/Sun-Times

Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.

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