"In a lot of cases, we're seeing kids who haven't had anything to eat in two days," said Hunter Demster, a local activist and one of the organizers of the aid effort. "Or they're arriving without jackets and traveling through cold weather."
A spokesman with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Carl Rusnok, said he couldn't say why the Central Americans are passing through Memphis.
But the situation apparently has to do with the federal government's recent decision to release families who cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally or come seeking asylum, rather than keeping those families detained. The released migrants are given instructions to appear later in immigration court.
Many Greyhound buses on national routes make stops at the Memphis terminal, on Airways Boulevard near the airport.
Silvia Leticia Garcia, the 41-year-old mother of Naomi, who wore a pink hat, wore an expression of confusion. She showed a reporter her bus pass, a map of the U.S. with her route from Texas, and a sheaf of immigration documents.
"They gave us so many papers," she said. As she and the children lined up to take the next bus, she said she was grateful for the help from the Memphis aid group. "Ah, it's good."
Stories of hitchhiking and a volcano
47-year-old Jose Luis Hernandez of Guatemala was traveling on Friday with his wife and two children: a three-year-old girl, and a 14-month-old boy.
"The reason for leaving my country is there's no work," he said. "A lot of violence. And my kids need their food. That's it."
He said the family had turned themselves in to U.S. immigration authorities near McAllen, Texas and spent three days in detention. He was released with an ankle monitor and a Catholic church offered food and orientation. He said the family was now headed to Huntington, New York, where a friend lives.
It was Friday, and he said he hadn't eaten since Wednesday. His wife and children eagerly ate from the sack lunches given to them.
54-year-old Ricky Pena of Honduras said he and his 16-year-old son had spent days walking and hitchiking through Mexico to the U.S. border.
And brothers Carlos Gomez, 40, and Juan Chen, 39, said they're farmers of coffee, beans and corn and their harvests were destroyed in a recent eruption of the Fuego volcano in Esquintla, Guatemala. They were traveling Thursday with two boys, ages 10 and 15, and said they'd left their wives at home as they headed to New York.
Immigration authorities stopped them at the border, but Gomez said they weren't mistreated.
"There, they received us with love," he said.
He said they were detained, then released. They traveled from Phoenix to Dallas, and said they didn't know the name of the town or city in New York where they were going.
Charitable group forms to help
Some people in the new aid organization say the group is informally called Immigration is Beautiful.
A key volunteer is local activist Ivan Flores. He said the first large bus of migrants came around 4 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 28.
He said One of the earliest leaders of the aid effort was Laura Coleman with a group called Showing Up for Racial Justice. Coleman said a contact in Dallas told her that about 30 Central Americans would be passing through Memphis. Volunteers started gathering aid.
It soon became clear the situation would last for days, and the effort expanded, with people bringing items to First Congregational Church in Midtown, she said.
They're coordinating donations through another grassroots advocacy group, the Memphis Feminist Collective.
Early Thursday, members of the coalition said officials at the Greyhound bus terminal had banned the group from distributing aid to the migrants, but the organization was soon let back in.
Ankle monitors, sometimes
The Arizona Republic reported last month that the government has begun releasing large numbers of people arriving along the U.S.-Mexico border.
The releases come in response to a surge of Central American families arriving at the border and a lack of detention space, it reported.
The government also said it was releasing the families to avoid violating a legal decree called the Flores settlement, which limits the amount of time migrant children can be held in detention centers.
The adults in the family are given an ankle monitor, released into the custody of relatives living in the United States and given a hearing at an immigration court several weeks later, according to The Arizona Republic.
Pena, the father was traveling with his 16year-old son, was among the men at the station who said they weren't issued an ankle monitor. He said he'll meet his requirements in immigration court anyway. "I respect the laws of the United States."
The government has long released some people who have entered the United States illegally or arrived at the border seeking asylum. They've typically been given paperwork to appear in immigration court later. Some don't come to court and get deportation orders.
The policy, dubbed "catch-and-release" by opponents, stands in sharp contrast to President Trump's highly publicized decision shortly before the midterm elections to send the military to stop a big caravan of Central Americans trying to make their way to the U.S.
In many cases, released migrants wait years for a hearing before an immigration judge. Many claim asylum, and many asylum claims are denied — the poverty and extreme gang violence common in Central American countries usually doesn't fit the asylum criteria.
Retired Memphis immigration judge Charles E. Pazar has said asylum seekers must show credible fear of persecution based on at least one of the following: race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.
The Trump administration on Tuesday announced new rules to deny asylum to anyone who enters illegally. Advocates for immigrants argue the president is overstepping the law, and a legal challenge appears likely.
According to a USA TODAY report, the American Civil Liberties Union is seeking a court injunction to block Trump's new restrictions on asylum, arguing in a lawsuit filed Friday that the policy violates federal immigration law.
“The new asylum ban is flatly unlawful and may result in many people being sent back to danger," said Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project.
“Neither the President nor the Attorney General may override the immigration laws enacted by Congress,” Gelernt said. The ACLU, along with the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Center for Constitutional Rights, filed the lawsuit on behalf of several refugee and immigrant advocacy groups in federal court in Northern California on Friday.
Meanwhile, the volunteers said they plan to meet every bus that's coming from a border area. And for now, Naomi Garcia and her family will start a new life in Tennessee.
Anibal Lopez Funes, a 39-year-old Guatemalan immigrant, poses for a portrait inside the Greyhound bus station in Memphis on Thursday. DANIEL CONNOLLY / THE
Migrant children stand in front of tents in the makeshift refugee camp at the northern Greek border point of Idomeni, Greece, in 2016. The U.N. refugee agency pulled out staff Tuesday from facilities on Lesbos and other Greek islands being used to detain refugees and migrants as an international deal with Turkey came under further strain. AP PHOTO/DARKO VOJINOVIC