Charlotte and Dave Willner started a Facebook fundraiser, titled “Reunite an immigrant parent with their child,” after they saw a viral photo of a 2-year-old Honduran girl looking up and crying as her mother was searched by a Border Patrol agent in southern Texas. They created the page on Saturday, June 16, hoping to raise $1,500. As of Wednesday, more than 300,000 donors have raised more than $12 million. The page is bringing in more than $10,000 a minute, according to organizers.
The Willners say they were motivated to start the fundraiser because the photo reminded them of their own 2-year-old daughter.
“This is the exact face she makes when she’s terrified,” wrote Charlotte Willner in a Facebook post June 15.
The money will be go to the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) — a large immigration legal services non-profit organization in Texas. In addition to $12 million on Facebook, the organization has raised at least an additional $4.5 million through its own website. The group’s entire budget in recent years has been around around $7 million.
Specifically, the money will be divided between two projects: The Legal Representation, Advocacy, and Education (LEAF) for Universal Representation for Unaccompanied Children and the Family Reunification and Bond Fund: Free our Families. The group says the projects, created around early June, serve the parents of separated families and provide representation for unaccompanied minors after they are released from custody.
President Trump signed an order Wednesday to end family separations at the border, and the House is preparing to vote on immigration legislation. Both bills include language to end the controversial policy.
RAICES says even if the administration’s family separation policy ends, the money will still go toward legal representation for immigrant families and addressing the “endless amount of need for families to be served and kept together.” The Willmers plan to end the fundraiser this Saturday.
RAICES was chosen as the recipient of the funds because the couple was inspired by the organization’s work, says Malorie Lucich, a friend of the Willners helping to coordinate the fundraiser.
“Before anything else happens, families need to be reunited,” Lucich wrote in an email Wednesday. “We are truly impressed with their organization, planning and compassion for the people they work with every day.”
RAICES Director of Education and Outreach Jennifer Hixon says the donations will enable RAICES to do the work they have dreamed of doing.
“Working in this field for the last year and a half has been really hard,” said Hixon. “This is a resounding statement by thousands of people around the country that it’s not okay what’s going on at the border and that they want to join us in fighting back.”
The organization says it’s considering partnering with other organizations to spread the funds out and “get the money where it needs to go.”
The Trump administration has maintained that it is following immigration law and it is up to Congress to solve the family separation issue.
As NPR has reported, the reunification isn’t quite as simple as the title of the fundraiser might imply. Detained parents face a court hearing where the fact that they have children may not be considered or even mentioned.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement says it will “make every effort to reunite the child with the parent once the parent’s immigration case has been adjudicated.” A hotline has also been set up to help parents and children find each other.
“ICE and [the Office of Refugee Resettlement] will work together to locate separated children, verify the parent/child relationship, and set up regular communication and removal coordination, if necessary,” ICE said in a statement to NPR.
RAICES has been receiving referrals from people prosecuted through the federal criminal court system and helping to connect them with their children, but has also struggled to further assist those in need. Hixon says the organization is shocked by the fundraiser and that the money will allow the projects to finally move forward.
“What this enables us to do is not just identify [immigrant families], but to move to the next step and actually support them,” said Hixon. “We really want to make sure that people get access to counsel … It really doesn’t get less ridiculous than the idea that a 4-year-old is going to go to court and represent themselves without an attorney.”
The Facebook page for the fundraiser is filled with words of encouragement and offers of help. Jacob Hill, 20, decided to make a donation after hearing about the fundraiser on a podcast.
“For me, the way that I’ve processed this news has proceeded in stages,” said Hill. “From wanting to cry when you see the images of these kids to rage to wanting to try to do something about it. This is such an easy way to feel like you’re making a contribution.”
Both former Facebook employees, (Charlotte is now employed by Pinterest and Dave by Airbnb), the couple’s efforts garnered the attention of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg who both made donations, according to Politico. The fundraiser is also being matched up to $360,000 by a number of private donors according to the Facebook page.
“Just as the administration is doubling down on horrible, harmful policies, we need to double down on doing big things to fight back,” said Hixon. “This is our answer to the administration continuing to target immigrants in our community and our immigrant families.”
Talia Wiener is an intern on NPR’s National Desk.