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These parents hoped to raise $1,500 for separated families. Then their Facebook fundraiser went viral

These parents hoped to raise $1,500 for separated families. Then their Facebook fundraiser went viral
A 2-year-old Honduran asylum seeker cries as her mother is searched and detained near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018, in McAllen, Texas. (John Moore / Getty Images)

When Charlotte Willner saw the image of a crying 2-year-old watching as her mother was searched and detained along the U.S.-Mexico border, Willner's reaction was visceral. She and her husband, Dave, have a daughter around the same age. They couldn't imagine their daughter feeling that sheer terror.

Sometimes people say a picture is worth 1,000 words. But that picture, by Getty photographer John Moore, is now worth much more than that. It's what spurred the California couple to launch a fundraising campaign on Facebook for the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), which pays the bonds and legal fees of parents and children separated at the border.

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They wanted to raise $1,500, enough to help one family. But as of early Tuesday afternoon, that amount was at $5 million.

The Willners are flabbergasted by the support — and heartened.

"Regardless of political party, so many of us are distraught over children being separated from their parents at the border," Charlotte Willner said. "We can't all be on the front lines to help these families, but by supporting RAICES, we're able to do something that just takes less than a minute, and collectively have an impact."

According to the Willners, the average donation is $40. Private donors have also matched the first $250,000. A post in Pantsuit Nation, an online platform that organizes activists, gave the fundraiser its boost toward a million.

RAICES, with headquarters in San Antonio, has been on the front lines of the immigration battle for a long time. Jenny Hixon, RAICES's director of education, outreach and development, said that although the zero-tolerance border-crossing policy began in April, the detention centers and cage structures coming out in news stories now have actually been around years.

"We've all talked among ourselves [at RAICES] that if people knew what was happening, they would be horrified," Hixon said. "The system isn't set up for kindness, compassion or justice. Now that people know and people see, if they keep the pressure up, there is really a chance that we can change this."

Nearly 2,000 children were separated from their adult guardians at the border between April 19 and the end of May, according to the Department of Homeland Security. When children are separated from their parents, Hixon explained, the parents are usually taken to a detention center to await a trial. Unable to raise money for bail, they can wait there for months, or even years, she said. If or when they do get out, many times their children are no longer where they can find them.

"The sheer panic a parent must feel, I can't imagine," she said. "Last year, our family detention program served 7,000. It's a small and scrappy team of folks that do amazing work . . . When we committed to the bond program we jumped because we thought it was really important. We jumped and the U.S. citizens caught us."

RAICES funnels resources to these parents in the form of bond payments and free or low-cost legal representation for them and their children. More than 13,000 children went without representation last year, and bonds can be in the tens of thousands. The typical bond rests at $1,500, which is why the Willners originally chose that number as a goal.

"We originally set it up to raise $1,500, and clearly there's a lot of public enthusiasm to help these families," Charlotte Willner said. "We don't think we're a meaningful part of this compared to the overwhelming tide of support from everyone who has given. Donating is the easy part, so our hope is that people continue to be hungry for information and get involved."

With the millions pouring in, RAICES has gone into overdrive to beef up relief efforts, hire more qualified lawyers and professionals, and fulfill more of its pie-in-the-sky initiatives than it ever thought would be possible.

"This is one of those cases where we can now do things we've always wished we could do," thanks to donations, Hixon said. "We're ramping up our representation of the parents. We're hiring more legal point people who try to get the families back in communication with each other. We're launching a nationwide network of people to provide support to people after they are released from detention, because as you can see, this is traumatizing."

Often when children leave detention, they need help. Their family has been altered and they may suffer from PTSD, separation anxiety, toxic stress and more. The detainment will have long-term effects on these children. RAICES is setting up a network of therapists and psychologists looking to help.

RAICES will get the sum from the Facebook fundraiser by mid-July, when Facebook releases the funds raised the previous month through its donations services. Facebook and the Willners take nothing; 100 percent of the donations go to the organization.

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As for the Willners, a couple who met in Silicon Valley working in the tech industry, they say they're happy to have been able to help in any capacity.

"When we all come together in community efforts like this," Charlotte Willner said, "we can find an antidote to the feelings of helplessness."

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