In late June last year, Julie Schwietert Collazo was on her way back from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office in lower Manhattan where she had just missed a demonstration by a group of mothers there. Like many, she and her husband, Francisco, were troubled by the immigrant detention stories at the southern border and didn’t know how they could help beyond making their voices heard. During that car ride, Julie heard a radio report that would change her life.
Jose Orechena, a New York City attorney, was being interviewed about his client, Yeni González Garcia, a Guatemalan mother seeking asylum in the U.S. who was being held in immigrant detention in Arizona. Her children were in foster care in New York. Provided González Garcia could post bail, she could relocate to New York and work on being reunited with them. The only thing standing between her and her children was money.
“I thought, ‘Okay, well that seems like a really tangible thing–we could mobilize people to raise money for this person’s bond,'” Julie recalls.
At the time, Julie didn’t even know the amount of what was a $7,500 bond. And she also knew that González Garcia would need help getting to New York, as well as ongoing support, including help getting her children into school, assistance with finding a place to live, organizing transportation, and tending to the day-to-day needs of her family. She would not be able to apply for authorization to work until her asylum application had been in process for 180 days, so she would need help supporting herself. Plus, alone with her children in a new country, she would need friends. Helping her would be a commitment beyond just raising money.
After Julie and Francisco decided to move forward, she contacted Orchena and, on June 25, 2018–just a few days after she heard his voice on the radio–she set up a GoFundMe page that would become the catalyst for their organization, Immigrant Families Together, to raise the bond money.
Money changes everything
Through social media contacts, Julie spearheaded raising the bond amount and then some. The couple and fellow volunteers were also able to arrange ground transportation for Gonzales to help her reunite with her children.
But then the money kept coming–and there were so many more people who needed help. Actor Kristen Bell even donated as a birthday present to herself, raising awareness of the effort. And with that attention came travel to meet with potential donors while working–Julie is a full-time freelance writer and editor, and Francisco is a full-time translator–as well as their three children and Francisco’s recovery from surgery. The effort has personal meaning to the family, as Francisco is a Cuban refugee.
To date, Immigrant Families Together has raised about $1 million, reuniting 60 families and providing support to roughly 100 families who are going through the asylum process. They help families with everything from finding legal counsel to locating a place to live. One fact that many asylum seekers don’t realize is that their chances of being granted asylum vary greatly depending on where they live. Syracuse University tracks the records of federal immigration judges. Those in Baltimore and New York tend to find in favor of the asylum seekers more than judges in Memphis or Miami, for example. One judge in Louisiana has denied all asylum cases in her court since its 2013 fiscal year.
The Motivating power of families
The stories of families on the southern border have stirred people to take action, says Barbara Peña, education and outreach coordinator with Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), a San Antonio, Texas, nonprofit that focuses on providing free and low-cost legal services to immigrant families. Because the organization is small, it typically focused on local issues. However, since family detentions escalated in 2018, the nonprofit’s resources were stretched thin. Then, Charlotte and Dave Willner, a couple from Menlo Park, California, who are also parents, decided to launch a Facebook fundraiser for the organization, and things began to change, Peña says.
The RAICES team kept an eye on the Willners’s effort. “We thought that if the fundraiser maxes out at $5,000, that would be a bonus. It would be a sign of success,” Peña recalls. Then, the amount started going higher–$25,000, $30,000, $50,000—and the excitement grew. When the fundraiser broke the $100,000 mark, she says the office erupted in cheers. In all, the fundraiser raised more than $20 million—tripling the group’s annual budget in roughly two weeks. It became the largest fundraiser in Facebook history.
The money has allowed RAICES to scale in ways they never thought possible. Suddenly the focus of a national spotlight, Peña says the organization received more donations, including international gifts, which helped them launch a hotline, add much-needed staff, find more pro bono attorneys, and hire people with specialized skills, such as social workers with experience helping trauma survivors. On January 1, 2019, Charlotte reported on her fundraising page that the money had helped RAICES hire nearly 140 more employees, including 40 attorneys and 40 legal assistants; open three new offices in Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio; and accept more than 400 new cases, among other actions. She doesn’t see the need ebbing anytime soon.
Solving problems like a business
The Collazos are also growing their effort, registering Immigrant Families Together as a 501(c)3 organization. But while it is a nonprofit, Julie looks at its operations as a business with leadership perspective, focusing on how they can deploy their resources most efficiently and effectively. In addition, she realizes the need to provide support to the volunteers in the organization who work tirelessly and need training and development, she says.
Julie hopes that by using good business practices, “I can move more into that role where I’m looking at the bigger picture as opposed to just day-to-day crisis management,” she says. That will give her the time to grow the organization and reunite more families.