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Women Ask ‘What if It Were Me?’ and Rush to Aid Separated Families

Julie Schwietert Collazo unrolled a giant sheet of paper at her kitchen table in Long Island City, Queens, New York, on a recent morning. As her three children played nearby, she began going down a list of names written on it in purple marker.

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Annie Correal
, New York Times

Julie Schwietert Collazo unrolled a giant sheet of paper at her kitchen table in Long Island City, Queens, New York, on a recent morning. As her three children played nearby, she began going down a list of names written on it in purple marker.

“Hillary Estefany. Hillary Alejandra,” she read, explaining they were 19-year-old twins whose brother was separated from them after they illegally crossed the Southwest border. Both were being held in Eloy, Arizona, on $15,000 bonds. “Delmi. She’s from Guatemala,” she went on. “Separation case. $30,000.”

Just over three weeks ago, Schwietert Collazo launched a crowdfunding campaign on behalf of another woman detained in Eloy, Yeni González, a Guatemalan migrant whose children had been taken from her at the border as part of the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy. Schwietert Collazo was spurred into action after she heard González’s lawyer on the radio. While González was being held in Arizona on a $7,500 bond, her three children were living in a foster home in New York.

“The subtext was if we could get her here, she could get her kids back,” Schwietert Collazo said.

She set about getting González to New York. She asked a few mothers she had just met at a donation drive for separated children — and then the public — to help post González’s $7,500 bond.

Like the Texas-based nonprofit Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, or RAICES, which raised more than $20 million after launching a Facebook fundraiser to cover one detained parent’s $1,500 bond, the New York group soon exceeded its once modest goal. As of this week, Schwietert Collazo’s group, which has gone from being called the Yeni González Support Team, to Immigrant Families Together, has raised more than $300,000. They call themselves “a network of Americans committed to rapid response unification of families separated by the ‘zero-tolerance’ policy.”

Sara Farrington, a playwright, joined the group and “blitzed mom groups within 100 miles of here” on Facebook to raise money. “People ask me, ‘Why this?’ ‘Why aren’t you focusing on the midterms?’ I think it comes back to empathy,” she said. “To the gut punch of a mom separated from her 5-year-old. The reason that this has exploded, I truly think, is that moms have put themselves in that situation. It has hit a primitive motherly nerve. I think it all stems from, ‘What if it were me?'”

Schwietert Collazo, a former social worker, is now a writer and editor. She launched the Yeni González crowdfunding campaign on June 25. Days later, she paid her bond, and González was released to her lawyer, José Orochena, in Eloy, and set out for New York.

Other women in the Eloy Detention Center learned of Orochena through González, who gave them her lawyer’s contact information before she was released. Someone typed it up at a library in the detention center, printed 50 copies, and circulated them, Orochena said.

As the lawyer was flooded with calls, he passed along women’s names to Schwietert Collazo and her group. And so began their round-the-clock work to release and reunite the mothers of Eloy with their children. For each woman they learned about, the organizers launched a crowdfunding campaign in her name.

To date, the group has raised funds — through a mix of crowdfunding and private donors — to cover the bonds of 12 women. It has also arranged for them to be driven by volunteers to wherever their children were sent, even if it was thousands of miles from Eloy. Most cannot fly because immigration authorities have held onto their photo identification.

The group has also provided the newly reunited families with housing and pro bono attorneys in the states where they have ended up, Schwietert Collazo said, creating, in the process, a broad network of helpers. “With the rabbis in Tennessee,” she said into her phone at one point this week, “we should be set.”

But now, the group’s role may be changing. The federal government is hastily putting families back together to meet a court-ordered deadline to reunite all separated families by July 26. And the group in New York is getting calls for new kinds of help from all over the country.

This week, a lawyer made an urgent request for medical care for two girls, 2 and 6, who were on the road to Maryland after being reunited with a parent, but had been running high fevers. Another lawyer needed diapers and wipes.

Meghan Finn, the group member in charge of coordinating the women’s travel after they are released from Eloy, said what they had been hearing was distressing.

After being transported over long distances to be reunited, often without much food or sleep, many families had been released in government offices, airports and bus stations, with their ankle monitors and a handful of paperwork from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and little more than the clothes in which they crossed the border.

“They’re getting dropped off at Greyhound stations at random times,” said Finn, co-artistic director of the Tank, a nonprofit theater in midtown Manhattan.

“Listen, this is our job. This is our job because our government did something really heinous to these families, and it’s not just about putting them on a bus.” Other than Schwietert Collazo’s husband, Francisco Collazo — a refugee from Cuba who arrived on the Mariel boatlift — the group members are all women, most of them mothers. As their days have been consumed with helping separated families, their partners and parents have taken over child care duties, cooking meals, giving the children haircuts.

“My mom refers to the kitchen as the ‘immigration office,'” said Finn, who lives in the Kensington neighborhood of Brooklyn, with her husband and their two young sons.

Schwietert Collazo remembers checking with her husband before she launched the first campaign. “I said, ‘We both have to be all in on this. Because it’s something that’s going to take over our lives.’ But I don’t think either of us expected it would be to this extent.”

Meeting the women they have bonded out has revealed the toll of separation and detention, Finn said. “They’re losing their hair. Their hands are peeling. They’re malnourished. It takes them a while to eat properly.”

So the group has continued raising funds to get more mothers out of Eloy, even as the immigration authorities there have kept increasing the bonds. Delmi’s bond, $30,000, is about four times as much as González’s bond. “It’s the highest one I’ve seen,” Schwietert Collazo said.

On Tuesday, Finn sat with her laptop in a narrow dressing room at Tank on West 36th Street — that day’s immigration office. As actors rehearsed to music onstage, she got a text message from Schwietert Collazo. Two more bonds had been posted, including one that would have expired the next day.

“Yes! Yes!” Finn said, slapping the counter. “Beautiful. We’re going to get these ladies out!”

She picked up the phone and called a group member on the West Coast to start organizing the women’s travel.

The next day, Delmi’s bond was covered, too — all $30,000 of it. Actress Kristen Bell closed the gap, with a $4,207 donation.

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