One summer day in 2018, Julie Schwietert Collazo listened to an interview on the radio that changed her life: She learned of a Guatemalan refugee who had been separated from her children at the US border. Without hesitation, she sprung into action and helped this mother reunite with her children in New York - an incredible act of kindness that would end up inspiring thousands of people to join her fight for justice. Since that day, Julie has helped dozens of immigrant families find safety, happiness, and hope.
In Julie’s words, the story of Immigrant Families Together from her interview on GoFundMe’s podcast, True Stories of Good People:
Like so many Americans, I was horrified when stories about the president’s zero tolerance policy at the borderlands started to emerge in the spring of 2018. My husband Francisco is a Cuban immigrant, and we’ve always been heavily involved in social justice activism. For us, this issue hit especially close to home.
People were arriving at the border in huge numbers to seek asylum, and this policy ripped children from their parents’ arms and sent them halfway across the country into foster care facilities. Once I began to see the photos of children in cages and people under aluminum foil blankets, I just felt this profound rage and desperation.
In late June, I heard an interview on the radio with an immigration attorney who was speaking about his client, a Guatemalan woman named Yeni González Garcia who had been separated from her children. I remember the attorney saying, “She could be with her kids if she could just raise the money to post bond and get to New York” - and that’s when a light bulb came on. I didn’t know how much her bond was, but it struck me immediately that raising money for one person and paying her bond was a really concrete thing we could do in the midst of this crisis.
A few days after hearing that interview on the radio, I reached out Yeni’s attorney and told him our plan. First, Francisco and I wanted to post her bond. Then, we wanted to create a community of support to help her get from Arizona to New York to be with her children. We wanted to help her navigate the legal system and successfully go through her immigration proceedings.
Shortly after we launched our GoFundMe for Yeni, we blazed past our goal and were able to provide her with $30,000 to cover her bond, and travel and resettlement expenses.
Yeni’s story got a lot of media exposure very quickly, and it became obvious that there was going to be momentum around this issue. People were desperate for a way to do something concrete and impactful that would help these families pay their bonds, which can run anywhere from $1,500 to $30,000. Yeni’s attorney began calling us again and again, asking, “Can you help another family?”
Yeni’s case became the catalyst for Immigrant Families Together, an organization that Francisco and I created to help moms, dads, grandparents, and older siblings reunite with their family members after crossing the border. Our team of 12 volunteers came together very quickly and organically. Many of us are moms who feel personally affronted by a policy that would separate a parent from their child.
Since June 2018, IFT has raised over $1.8 million through our current GoFundMe and past fundraisers, and we’ve spent over $700,000 of that to pay for the bonds of 80 people. We’ve used the remaining funds to provide long-term support to these families. Our goal is to give them the best chance at asylum by providing ongoing support while they wait months, or up to a year, to receive their work authorization permits. This support covers everything from housing and medical services, to helping them enroll their kids in school.
Our organization recently applied for our nonprofit status because we want to provide more transparency and accountability to our donors. The hope is to eventually pay our volunteers and develop a job skills program for the families we help.
Helping one person get out of detention has a ripple effect that’s difficult to quantify. That single person probably supports at least two other people here, as well as extended family back in their home country. The impact extends to so many more people than we know about.
As I’ve worked with these families, I’ve heard many harrowing stories, but also stories of hope. One mother from Honduras was 20 when she arrived with her 3-year-old son. They weren’t separated because her son had developmental delays, and immigration felt it would be too burdensome to figure out a way to take care of this child without his mother around.
So they put them together in a cell and gave the mother only a single diaper each day. After detention, her son regressed and became unresponsive. But in the months since we’ve helped them come to New York, he’s become a different person. Now he talks and laughs and plays. He’s a constant reminder to me that we can’t give up on what we’re doing.
It’s beautiful that so many of the donations we’ve received have been just a few dollars. But when a few dollars is amplified by thousands of people, it can make a huge difference. It’s a powerful reminder of how much agency we all have as individuals, regardless of our social position or our economic status. As a collective group of people, we can do something meaningful in a short amount of time - and that’s what keeps me going.