A Chicago Nonprofit Shows How To Create an “Aboveground Railroad” for Migrants

Chicago Immigrant Transit Assistance helps asylum seekers at Greyhound bus stations who have been let out of a detention facility or come from other departing cities – forming an “aboveground railroad” to help migrants passing through Chicago.

A woman enters the Greyhound bus station with two children on Friday. They were among a group of migrants that were released to the streets of Downtown in September in El Paso. (Photo by Elida S. Perez / El Paso Matters)

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This story was co-published with El Paso Matters as part of our joint Equitable Cities Reporting Fellowship For Borderland Narratives.

In the 1980s, when Sendy Soto and her family left Guatemala for the United States in search of a better life, they followed in a long American immigrant tradition by making Chicago’s Logan Square their home.

There, among her Mexican, Central American, Polish and other immigrant neighbors, Soto was instilled with a sense of community and a desire to help and work with Chicago’s growing migrant population.

A 2020 report from the Vera Institute of Justice showed that 1.7 million migrants reside in Chicago, about 18% of the population, and 842,000 are at risk of deportation. For more than 15 years, Soto had worked with government entities and nonprofits in the City of Chicago and the state of Illinois to close racial disparities and protect vulnerable immigrants: In 2008, she worked with U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), the author of the DREAM Act, which later became DACA.

A decade later, Soto founded the Chicago Immigrant Transit Assistance (CITA). Under her leadership, the organization helped asylum seekers at Greyhound bus stations around the city who have been let out of a detention facility or come from other departing cities – forming what Soto has called an “aboveground railroad” to help migrants passing through her city.

The network’s efforts took on new urgency with the influx of migrants through the country’s Southern border. With the expected end of the Title 42 border policy, initiated in 2020 at the onset of the pandemic under former President Donald Trump and later expanded by the Biden administration — which allows border agents to immediately expel many migrants without providing them the opportunity to seek asylum — many border cities and receiving cities alike expect a new surge of migrants. That’s particularly the case with Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s controversial move to bus thousands of migrants to “sanctuary cities” such as Chicago, New York City and Washington D.C. in what the federal government has denounced as a politically motivated “stunt.”

Soto has been doing this work since 2018, well before Title 42 was invoked. Her organization’s efforts in Chicago holds lessons for other cities receiving or shuttling migrant populations.

“At that time, everybody had sponsors, so they were released to their sponsors,” says Soto.

Most migrants used the Greyhound bus service since it was the most widely available transport for them to use. However, Soto said the company needed to provide better information for people who needed help speaking English or could not read or write.

“We really went in there and addressed some of their logistical needs,” she says. “We very quickly realized that we had to support them through their emotional challenges. Since they were recovering from being in immigration detention for months.”

Volunteers helped provide some of the immediate needs of migrants, such as appropriate clothing for the city’s weather. The work done by CITA also helped Soto and the organization learn more about the logistics of the migrants they helped and where they wanted to go.

“At the time, we were able to gauge where certain nationalities were going to,” Soto says. “Typically, it is driven by the workforce.”

As migrants’ situation has shifted, CITA’s work has changed accordingly. Today, Soto says, migrants coming through the border increasingly do not have sponsors or a place to go as immigration officers release them.

“It really puts a lot of the cities that are receiving individuals and families at the forefront of providing safe shelters,” Soto says.

Her work with the City of Chicago and the State of Illinois helped the public sector establish a hotel model to help migrants get situated while awaiting work visas and permanent accommodations.

“A really unique advantage that we have here in the state is that government is a very open and welcoming partner on this work, both on the state and city side,” she says. “Our elected officials and every hard-working individual that works in these spaces are not afraid to address these issues, and definitely are not xenophobic towards our immigrant neighbors, (who are now) residents of the state.”

Local residents, city and state officials, along with nonprofit organizations, work together to help migrants new to the city. At the same time, they find work and housing while they wait for their day in immigration court. Soto said this unique partnership works well thanks to a diverse representation among elected officials.

“One wonderful outcome of having representation in all levels of the public sector is that you build awareness, knowledge and compassion towards populations that maybe you weren’t familiar with,” Soto says. “Having progressive leaders in these organizations really helps us to make more welcoming opportunities for immigrants.”

Migrants, according to Soto, don’t all have the exact needs when coming to the United States. Specific necessities need to be identified to help them get to where they need to be. Public officials and those who run nonprofits also vary from city to city in their approach to immigration. Soto recommends migrants and those wanting to help research services provided wherever they are and not make assumptions based on prior bad experiences.

“It’s important not to have a one-size-fits-all approach,” she says. “Really thinking through a human-centered approach. Who is giving me this information, who is pulling the levers here and how does this differ from my own city or state?”

Chicago and the state of Illinois are frequently touted as migrant-friendly places. However, their ability to uphold that promise is also limited depending on the funding available.

“Understand the limitation, too,” Soto says. “As much as there is this desire to do impact work, resources aren’t sometimes going to be fully available to how we need them to be. Understanding those limitations can build a better awareness of what is being done with those limited resources versus what is not being done with the resources.”

Partnerships between the nonprofit and the public sector are essential, Soto said, since ongoing immigration will require permanent solutions.

“Building partners that we know have an interest in doing this work and not isolating them can only make things better moving forward,” she says. “Here, people are willing to listen and continue to grow.”

This story has been corrected to reflect that Soto still lives in Logan Park and no longer runs CITA.

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Christian De Jesus Betancourt is Next City and El Paso Matters' joint Equitable Cities Reporting Fellow for Borderland Narratives. He has been a local news reporter since 2012, having worked at the Temple Daily Telegram, Duncan Banner, Lovington Leader and Hobbs News-Sun. He's also worked as a freelance reporter, photographer, restaurant owner and chef. Born and raised in Juarez, El Paso became Betancourt’s home when he moved there in the seventh grade. 

Tags: chicagoimmigrationmigration

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