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Inside the Crowdfunding Campaign to Reunite a Family Separated at the Border

"We live in this incredible moment where 'ordinary citizens' have so many means at their disposal to take action. Crowdfunding really provides an equalizing opportunity for people to be involved."

Security personal stand before shoes and toys left at a Port of Entry where minors crossing the border have been housed after being separated from adults, June 21, 2018. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP)

Last Thursday, the sun scorched outside CoreCivic’s detention center in Eloy, Arizona. In the 104 degree heat, dust storms swirled across the road and sky, momentarily erasing the detention center before it appeared again: concrete square buildings, chain-link fences, barbed wire. Several hours after it arrived, a white car emerged from the parking lot. Inside were immigration attorney José Xavier Orochena and his client Yeni Gonzalez-Garcia, free for the first time in six weeks.

Gonzalez-Garcia, 29, is a Guatemalan immigrant who was seeking asylum in the United States when she crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in May with her three children, ages 6, 9, and 11. After surrendering to Border Patrol, her children were sent to Cayuga Centers in New York City, along with 240 other immigrant children who have been separated from their parents. Gonzalez-Garcia was detained separately in Arizona. She first spent time at a detention facility in Yuma, which many migrants call “icebox” or hielera because of the freezing temperatures. After a few days, she was transferred to the detention center in Eloy, a facility with a reputation for violence and assault. Then, on June 28, because of grassroots organizing efforts led by New York writer and mother of three Julie Schwietert Collazo, Gonzalez-Garcia made bond and was released.

Just a week before, on June 22, Schweitert Collazo had attempted to participate in a protest where fellow moms and their babies occupied the lobby of the New York City Immigration Court. The event had finished by the time she arrived with her three-year-old, but when she got back into her car and turned on the news, she heard Orochena talking about his client—a woman who was detained in Arizona while her kids were in New York City. Something clicked.

All week, Schwietert Collazo had been working with other area mothers to gather supplies for children being detained in New York City’s Cayuga Centers. At City Councilmember Mark Levine’s office, they filled two rooms floor-to-ceiling with clothing, diapers, Spanish language books, and art supplies. But as a former social worker, Schwietert Collazo understood the importance of working on an individual level.

“The feeling of overwhelm is real,” she said. “Where do we start? How do we penetrate the system? I need to focus on this one thing I think we can do.”

She and her husband decided they would pay Gonzalez-Garcia’s bond and sponsor her in New York City while she completed proceedings to reunify with her children. Schwietert Collazo called Orochena, who picked up on the first ring. “He was floored,” she said. He asked: “There is a group of people who would want to do this?”

Schwietert Collazo created a GoFundMe page and, in less than 24 hours, had raised enough money to cover Gonzalez-Garcia’s $7,500 bond. Just six days later, they have raised $27,064, with 477 people contributing donations. That includes a donation from Schwietert Collazo’s father, a lifelong Republican and former card-carrying member of the NRA, who sent a text from a fishing trip telling her that he would donate when he returned.

Orochena said paying the bond would have never been possible without Schwietert Collazo and her community’s support. Bond for those being held in immigration detention can cost anywhere from $1,500 to $80,000—if it’s set at all. That makes paying bond one of the biggest obstacles facing detained asylum seekers from impoverished countries—which is why it was the first goal of the GoFundMe campaign.

Reflecting on the campaign’s speed and success, Schwietert Collazo said, “We live in this incredible moment where ‘ordinary citizens’ have so many means at their disposal to take action. Crowdfunding really provides an equalizing opportunity for people to be involved.” In addition to the GoFundMe, Schwietert Collazo created a Google form for those in the New York area who wanted to be involved in supporting Gonzalez-Garcia. Another organizer, Meghan Finn, planned Gonzalez-Garcia’s cross-country transportation, which is complicated by the fact that she does not have the photo ID required to travel by plane.

“This also speaks to the fact that we have more power and influence than we allow ourselves to believe,” Schwietert Collazo says. “How can you leverage your community to do something? To not be completely anesthetized by despair.”

Standing outside Eloy just after her release, Gonzalez-Garcia’s first words were about her children. “I’m just happy I could get out so I can look for my children,” she said. “I feel like my heart had been torn into a thousand pieces when my children were ripped from my arms.”

The experience of being detained only added to the distress of separation. The women held in detention were not allowed to hug one another. Gonzalez-Garcia had not been permitted to change clothes during the 17 days she spent at the first detention facility. When she asked to call her children, an ICE officer told her, “No, there are no calls here.” When she asked another officer about their status, he told her, “You want to know something? You’re going to be deported to Guatemala and your children will be left in the hands of the government.”

In the time she was separated from her children, Gonzalez-Garcia only talked on the phone with them twice. This is in part because of limitations for when calls can be placed in detention, and difficulties connecting with the children’s caseworker. Calls are also prohibitively expensive—Gonzalez-Garcia was only able to call because her family in North Carolina was able to send her some money. The two calls that connected were three minutes each, and on one of them no one was able to speak—the entire family was crying too hard.

Gonzalez-Garcia journeyed to the United States because of poverty and violence in Guatemala. Recent patterns of migration show that many Central Americans—particularly Hondurans, El Salvadorans, and Guatemalans—are fleeing not only because of poverty but extreme violence. “There is a lot of violence in Guatemala. That’s why I didn’t want my children there exposed to the Maras,” said Gonzalez-Garcia. “I told myself, ‘In Guatemala there are no opportunities, there’s no employment, there’s no jobs. I thought, this is the only way I will be able to give my kids a better life, a better future, better education.” But she had no idea the United States government would take her children from her. “It wasn’t until the moment I went to the detention center in Yuma that I found out they were taking my kids away.” At Eloy, Gonzalez-Garcia stayed in an area called Bravo 400, where she said there were many mothers like her.

Some mothers at Eloy told Orochena that they were told their children were taken to be given showers then never returned, while others were told outright that they were being separated. One mother told him that an ICE officer told her that the immigration judge didn’t want to see her kids and that to get a court date, her children would need to be taken and then brought back—the latter of which never happened.

After four weeks of requesting visits, Orochena was able to see Gonzalez-Garcia’s children at the Cayuga Center on June 27, the day before Gonzalez-Garcia was released. Orochena asked questions to assess the kids’ well being and saw no signs of physical harm. The children were brief, answering most questions with “fine,” but when he told them “your mom is coming,” her nine-year-old girl’s face shifted and she began to cry, wiping the tears before they could fall.

The following day, when Schwietert Collazo went to the New York Field Office of U.S. Customs and Immigration Service to pay bond for Gonzalez-Garcia, she walked into a room no larger than a walk-in closet. Signs in all-caps warned of one to four hour waits. For her, the process of filling out paperwork and waiting for it to clear took two hours, and the whole time the office buzzed. She was surrounded by people—moms with kids, men, a priest—many of whom didn’t speak English. “They’re sitting there with checks for outrageous amounts of money,” she says. “You just have to wonder: What did those people have to do to raise the money to bond somebody out?”

Schwietert Collazo knows about the ICE and INS system first-hand. Her husband immigrated from Cuba in 1980 as part of the Mariel boatlifts and has spent time in immigration detention facilities. She says her own children—ages 3, 4, and 8—are aware of what’s happening, particularly her eight-year-old daughter. “When the last presidential campaign and election was underway, Mariel was saying, ‘Is Poppy going to be deported?’ [My husband] said to me [when deciding] how far we could go in for Yeni: ‘I’ve been the one in an immigration detention center, and I know how alone you feel. One thing I wanted was to know that people cared.’”

In addition to supporting Gonzalez-Garcia, Schwietert Collazo hopes that this process can provide a template for those who want to help families being detained. “The most important change is going to happen on the micro level, and then you scale it,” she said. “We can help this one family reunite and have a semblance of a life while they go through this difficult time.”

Immediately after being released, Orochena took Gonzalez-Garcia to get new clothes. Then she began her cross-country trek with the help of a community of nine drivers, most of whom are involved in immigrant rights organizations, who have split the drive into legs ranging from 4.5 to 7 hours. She arrives in New York City today, where she will be greeted by supporters. An apartment is ready for her in Queens, and the community has organized to get her other items she needs, like a pre-paid phone.

In response to the support she has received, Gonzalez-Garcia said, “Thank you, thank you so much. I won’t be able to pay you all back, but you’ll receive blessings from God.”

When Orochena was at Eloy, he met with five other women who he had been referred to by Gonzalez-Garcia. “One parent doesn’t know where her child is, which is a huge obstacle, to get through the tape and find them. One parent has been detained for two months without a bond. Another’s bond is twice as much as Yeni’s at $15,000,” he said.

One woman he met with has a five-year-old child who is also at one of the Cayuga Centers. Schwietert Collazo says, “She is likely to be our next priority.”

Grassroots organizing efforts continue on three fronts, she says. The first is to ensure support for Gonzalez-Garcia, the second is work on bond and reunification of the next person. “The third piece,” Schwietert Collazo says, “is to finalize a replication document for all these people who are talking about wanting to do something similar and providing with everything learned as part of the process.”

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Lisa O'Neill

Lisa O'Neill is a freelance writer based in Tucson, Arizona who writes at the intersection of politics, popular culture, and social justice issues. Her July 2017 piece for Bitch Media was featured in the The New York Times' "What We're Reading" list, and other work has appeared in GOOD, Good Housekeeping, Everyday Feminism, Edible Baja Arizona, and Salon.

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