Bus stop hospitality

Released from ICE custody and traveling with their belongings, asylum seekers find a friendly face and sometimes a homemade meal in a strange land

Sisters-in-law Yolanda Sanchez (left) and Bonita Amaro look at bus arrival times on a monitor at the Greyhound station on Richards Boulevard.

Sisters-in-law Yolanda Sanchez (left) and Bonita Amaro look at bus arrival times on a monitor at the Greyhound station on Richards Boulevard.

Photo by Tess Townsend

If you’re interested in volunteering with Abuelas Responden, visit granniesrespond.org.

Bonita Amaro has just started the 6:30 a.m. drive from her home to the Greyhound bus station on Richards Boulevard. The sun hasn’t risen and it’s drizzling out. Her sister-in-law Yolanda Sanchez is meeting her at the station. Every day since September, at least one of them has gone to the station. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, they go together.

“We go hoping that there’s somebody there,” Amaro says.

The pair, both grandmothers in their 60s, belong to Abuelas Responden—Grannies Respond—a nationwide network of volunteers who meet asylum seekers from Central America when they arrive at bus stations after leaving federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement custody. The group formed following the mass separation of families crossing the border from Mexico, and is named for “the idea of what would grandmothers say about this in any country,” said founding member Catherine Cole of Beacon, New York.

The January 15 bus station visit is one example of how activists in the Sacramento area are aiding people who have trekked from violence-plagued countries such as Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras. Many volunteers got involved in response to U.S. Customs and Border Protection dividing children from parents at the border in summer 2018 as part of a ramp-up of criminal prosecution of adults crossing the border illegally. Other area residents are sponsoring asylum seekers and making trips to the border to volunteer.

Sacramento is often a transfer point for those heading further north to family or sponsors, who will support them while they go through the immigration court process. Sometimes they have snacks and warm clothes given to them by charities at the border. Other times, Amaro and Sanchez are the first to offer them anything.

In the back seat of Amaro’s SUV is a My Little Pony-print bag containing hats, gloves and children’s books. Sanchez is the cook. Some mornings she brings burritos. At Christmastime she brought homemade tamales.

“This is the last leg of their journey, actually, by the time we see them,” Amaro says.

Mother and son in transit

The bus, scheduled to arrive at 6:55 a.m. from Los Angeles, is running late. When passengers step off, Amaro and Sanchez watch through the doors of the station. The people they look for usually get off last. Amaro, wearing rimless glasses and a long-sleeve shirt under her Abuelas Responden T-shirt, says you can tell by how lost they seem and how little luggage they have. When asylees arrive after the sisters have left, bilingual station janitor Alma Magallanes calls them so they can return to help.

Sanchez and Amaro don’t consider themselves frequent activists, though they’ve attended women’s marches and Sanchez mentioned going to a Black Lives Matter rally. Amaro learned about Abuelas Responden this summer from a Facebook post about the group organizing a caravan to the border to protest family separation. She and Sanchez joined the caravan in San Antonio and followed it to McAllen.

“It called to me. I had never done that before,” Amaro says.

A woman in a winter jacket and sandals, with what looks like the bulge of an ankle monitor under the hem of her jeans, walks in with a young child. She’s carrying a blanket, a duffle, a backpack, a woven purse and a plastic bag containing apples, bananas and chips. The child clutches a Spider-Man figurine to his chest. Based on the items, they probably received help from a charity at the border, Sanchez says later.

Sanchez makes a beeline to the woman and guides her to a seat in the waiting area. They sit across from each other and talk in Spanish. The woman has the same first name as Sanchez—Yolanda. She’s 34 and left Guatemala a month ago with her 5-year-old son. They spent three days in detention. Yolanda tells Sanchez she has papers from immigration authorities, but that she isn’t literate and needs a lawyer.

Amaro asks the young boy to choose a paperback children’s book to keep. She takes out a black pair of hat and gloves and a red pair and asks him which he prefers. He chooses red. She asks Yolanda and the child if they want anything to eat from the concession stand at the station, her treat. The child asks for a coffee, then follows Amaro. He comes back with chocolate milk.

Barely 15 minutes from the time Yolanda and her son arrived, a voice announces their bus to Oregon is boarding. They gather their things. Sanchez accompanies them to the bus door. Yolanda will be sitting on the bus for as long as an hour before it leaves, but the sisters say that she must be relieved to have made her connection.