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Outrage over Trump immigration policies fuels groundswell of grassroots organizing

Wmc Features Protest Against Ice In Dc By Sarahmirk 072718
The Women Disobey protest against the Trump administration's family separation policy. Photo by Sarahmirk/Wikimedia Commons

The Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy resulted in thousands of children, including 103 under age five, being taken from their parents, sometimes in the middle of the night, and sent to separate facilities or foster care agencies, often thousands of miles away. The policy directed that parents be sent to detention for the crime of entering the country illegally, and their children taken into government custody, even if they were seeking asylum, which they have the right to do under U.S. and international law.

But chaos, media attention, and public outrage followed, mobilizing a groundswell of grassroots organizing, online fundraising, and volunteer efforts across the country to help reunite the families. In fact, as the administration scrambles to meet a court-imposed July 26 deadline to reunite all the separated families, it appears that most of the work is being done by advocacy groups and volunteers.  

In Texas, the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), which provides free and low-cost legal services to immigrants throughout the state, received $20 million through an online fundraiser organized by a California couple to pay the bonds for detained mothers who have been separated from their children. The original goal was to raise enough money for one parent.

In New York, Julie Schwietert Collazo wanted to help by raising money to pay the bond for one detained mother, Yeni González-García, whose case she heard about on the radio. González-García was being held in the Eloy Detention Center in Arizona while her three children had been taken to New York City. Schwietert Collazo partnered with other New York City women to set up an online fundraiser to pay González-García’s bond, organize her cross-country transport, and continue to support her while she worked to be reunited with her children. In just over three weeks, that effort turned into an organization, Immigrant Families Together, which has raised over $400,000 (and counting) and partnered with the International Rescue Committee to pay the bonds for detained mothers and help reunite them with their children, as well as providing resources and support while their asylum cases are being processed. “People have shown up in so many ways, big and small, and the only challenge is being able to keep up with all their generous offers,” said Schwietert Collazo. “Since the election of Trump, it seems that thousands upon thousands of people want to take concrete action; they just need to be guided toward opportunities to make a tangible difference.” Meghan Finn, now the organizer of transportation and reunification care for Immigrant Families Together, put together González-García’s trip, which took five days and involved 22 volunteers. Finn’s continued work has become her “second full-time job. I think Americans have a responsibility to do anything in their power to help these families to make up for the many wrongs committed during this period in our history.” 

Reuniting families has been extremely difficult since children were separated seemingly without a tracking system or anything that connected them to their parents, such as identity tags. And at press time, there were reports that 463 parents may have been deported without their children. “It's clear there was no process for reunification,” said Cristina Parker, communications director of Grassroots Leadership, a civil and human rights organization based in Texas that works on mass incarceration and immigrant detention issues. “Family separation is so heinous, it’s motivated people to reach out to us and our phones have been ringing off the hook. This is also a reproductive justice issue. Women should have the right to raise their children the way they want to, and have choices.”

Although President Trump signed an executive order ending family separation in late June, advocates are concerned about the prospect of families being detained for extended periods of time; currently there are protections against this. “This entire crisis was manufactured to bring back family detention,” said Parker.

Public outrage has kept the family separation crisis in the spotlight. “The grassroots response was instrumental in forcing the administration to back down from a policy that was inhumane and immoral,” said Jeanne Atkinson, executive director of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc. (CLINIC), an immigration legal services network. “The zero-tolerance policy is just one aspect of this administration’s attempt to dismantle our immigration system, piece by piece. In the course of this administration, we’ve had to constantly pivot and adapt our work to support our network.” Through donations, CLINIC has been able to fund travel stipends for 50 attorneys and legal representatives in their network to travel to the border region and volunteer their legal expertise.

“There has been an outpouring of support from lawyers who are not necessarily immigration lawyers,” said Victoria Neilson, a CLINIC attorney who has been volunteering to help recent border crossers detained in an Albany, NY, county jail prepare for their “credible fear” interviews with asylum officers to determine if they are fleeing persecution. “There is always a sense of urgency with asylum seekers, but this adds to it when someone has been separated from their children and is facing possible deportation. People have been rightly upset by this new level of horrific treatment of human beings. But it’s only one aspect of the policies by this administration to make it more difficult for asylum seekers fleeing violence.”

Immigrant advocates point to past administrations’ harsh treatment toward migrants, including the Obama administration, and they hope that this current outrage doesn’t wane over time and is extended toward policies for all detained immigrants and asylum seekers. “The architecture that has allowed trans women to be detained is the same one that allows children to be detained,” said Allegra Love, attorney and director of the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, which provides free legal representation in New Mexico to immigrants, including detained trans women. “The visual and the narrative around detained children is something that people can relate to. I have a fear that the images of detained trans women aren’t what most Americans are comfortable with. What concerns me is what we are willing to be comfortable with. It’s intolerable to put anyone in immigrant detention. The Trump administration is pushing as far as possible and showing no mercy for anyone, including women and children. Instead of helping the most vulnerable, they see any vulnerabilities as a perfect place to unravel everything.”

It’s impossible to know if this level of interest in immigrant issues will last, but the family separation crisis has provided people with “an on-ramp, a chance to be able to better educate themselves and understand what exactly is going on, how the government continues to infringe on the rights of immigrants and those seeking freedom from violence and political persecution,” said Susie Haslett, training director with FWD.us, a bipartisan organization for immigration and criminal justice reform. “I hope that this moment can evolve into a greater learning moment and public willingness to change other policies that have been ongoing since before the administration and need long-overdue, swift resolutions, such as protections for Dreamers and their parents that grant undocumented families the dignity they deserve.”

“We hope the public will continue to push back against policies of family separation and family detention, as well as policies to make it harder for families to win asylum,” said Dorothy Tegeler, co-director and Skadden fellow at the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project (ASAP) at the Urban Justice Center, which provides legal services in wrongful deportations cases, and focuses its work on mothers. ASAP runs an online community for formerly detained mothers seeking asylum, which includes access to materials, resources, and legal assistance to navigate the immigration system, and currently serves about 2,800 women. “We hope we can fight together until we end the government's cruelty and abuses at the border and until we can become a country that welcomes all immigrants and refugees.”

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