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Yeni Gonzalez-Garcia (center) was reunited with her three children at the East Harlem Cayuga Centers on July 13 in New York City. Gonzalez-Garcia, from Guatemala, was held away from her children as part of President Donald Trump's controversial zero-tolerance policy of removing immigrant children from their parents after they are detained. The policy was later reversed. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

How these moms are helping reunite immigrant families

Julie Schwietert Collazo was listening to the radio when she heard about a fellow mother — with three children like she has — who needed help. A woman from Guatemala was being held at the Eloy Detention Center in Arizona, and her attorney said she could rejoin her children in a New York foster care center to await her immigration proceedings if only she could pay her bond.

To Collazo, a freelance writer who lives in New York, it was an opportunity to help immigrant families who had been separated at the border. She called the attorney and asked if his client might be interested in her getting a group together to raise not only the bond to release her, but also the money to bring her to New York and support her while she pursued reunification with her children and went through her court case.

“He kind of just started laughing and said, of course that would be of interest,” Collazo said.

The bond for the mother, Yeni Gonzalez-Garcia, was $7,500 — money that was raised quickly through an online campaign. Collazo paid the bond at the immigration office in Manhattan and arranged for a group of mostly professional immigration advocates to pick up Gonzalez-Garcia at the Arizona detention facility and drive her to New York.

“The idea was not for her to see beautiful America,” Collazo said. The advocates thought it was safer, since she didn’t have identification, if they accompanied her on the cross-country trip.

In July, Gonzalez-Garcia was reunited with her children. “I feel very happy,” she said.

PBS NewsHour correspondent Amna Nawaz followed another reunification case: 3-year-old Sofi, who arrived in the United States with her grandmother.

Immigrant Families Together, the network Collazo started, raised more than $50,000 to help Gonzalez-Garcia while she goes through immigration legal proceedings and until she is authorized to work. She and her children now live with other relatives in North Carolina.

Gonzalez-Garcia was overwhelmed by people’s generosity but also by all of the media attention, Collazo said. Her case came at a moment when the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” border policy and resulting family separations dominated the news.

In late June, President Trump signed an executive action ordering that parents and children who enter illegally be kept together in detention. Days later, a federal judge ordered that the thousands of children who were separated needed to be reunited within 30 days. While most have now been reunited, hundreds remain in government custody after being deemed ineligible for reunification because their cases are still under review, their parents have criminal records, or their parents were deported.

When Gonzalez-Garcia was able to leave government detention, “she had told the women that she left behind that she would share their stories,” Collazo said, and she was true to her word. She collected the women’s contact information and basic information about their cases, and passed it along to the group.

Since Immigrant Families Together started in late June, the group has raised money to pay the bonds of 20 women — which range from $1,500 to $25,000 — and plans to support them financially for at least a year. The group uses federal poverty guidelines and family size to estimate how much to raise additionally for each case, such as $20,000 for a family of three.

Special volunteers make personal contact with the immigrants at bus stops, just after they’ve left the detention facility. When the immigrants arrive at their new hometowns, the group sends them food, clothing and other basics, according to another member Sara Farrington, who herself has two young boys.

While the group’s core members are “moms who are artists and writers” without a specialty in or experience with immigration law, Farrington said, Immigrant Families Together works with faith-based organizations, advocacy groups and a growing network of helpers to provide medical, legal and other services for free or at low cost.

Donors can contribute to the women’s individual funding pages, including Amazon wish lists for items such as school supplies, and follow their statuses on IFT’s website. Part of the appeal for donors is seeing directly where their dollars go, Farrington said.

For the immigrants whose trust in Americans might have been lost in the detention process, gestures of goodwill from the group can help restore it. “A lot of what instills trust are these magical boxes of Legos that appear at their doorstep. It’s pretty awesome,” she said.

View more stories about people working to make a difference in our Agents for Change series.

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