Pro-Bono Immigration Lawyers Raised $19 Million to Reunite Families Separated Along the Border

The Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) raised over $19 million in the span of a few days after the Trump administration’s so-called zero tolerance policy at the U.S./Mexico border sparked international outcry and left over 2,000 children separated from their parents, many of whom were seeking asylum, and detained within cages in tent cities and vacant Walmart buildings.

Activists protested the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy in Los Angeles. (Alicia Kay)

Since 1987, RAICES has been providing pro-bono legal representation to refugee and immigrant minors, adults and families in federal custody. Last year, with a budget of $7 million, RAICES was able to close 51,000 Pro Bono cases, and released up to 80 families through their Bond Fund. “Children with representation are five times more likely to be successful in their case that children who go to court alone,” RAICES explains on their website. “Representation is often the last line of safety for children very vulnerable to exploitation by both a system and a country hostile to their presence.”

Although Trump’s separation policy has since been halted due to mounting political pressure, the fate of those children and the likelihood of family reunifications moving forward remains largely unknown. What is clear is that the families torn apart by Trump’s policies were denied justice—and the children waiting to go home to their parents will likely carry lasting trauma from the administration’s xenophobic practices.

“When children get this afraid, these stress hormones invade every organ,” pediatrician Dr. Martha Griffin told MSNBC. “This hormone changes everything. If children separated for just 72 hours, this is an eternity of terror for a child. It will have lasting affects. They can have chronic heart disease, learning problems, behavioral problems, obesity, substance abuse, hypertension, increased risk of suicidality.”

In response to the family separation policy, RAICES started an #EndFamilySeparation campaign on Facebook—and within days, had raised over $5 million dollars. With over $19 million now in their bank accounts, RAICES went on Facebook Live to explain to their community members how the funds will be allocated.

In the video, staff pledged to prioritize family reunification, including locating the families and the children, and explained that they are currently brainstorming strategies. They also committed to reopening the Legal Representation Advocacy Fund (LEAF) Program, which provides no-cost legal representation to children in Texas, and increasing support for the Bond Fund, which covers costs for families in order to help them be released from ICE custody, and the Post Relief Volunteer Project and Accompaniment Network, which helps undocumented immigrants understand their rights. The organization also plans to hire more legal assistants, outreach workers and attorneys; produce a series of podcasts that feature Asylum seekers and refugees; update their website to account for this sudden boom in traffic, ramp up volunteer trainings and other programs and provide critical social services and donated items to immigrant families.

“We are feeling overwhelmed by the incredible generosity,” Director of Outreach Barbara Peña said in the video. “Thank you. This is typically work that doesn’t happen in the spotlight.”

Cori Bratby-Rudd is an eclectic writer from the Bay Area. She graduated Cum Laude from UCLA’s Gender Studies department, and is a current MFA in Creative Writing at Cal Arts. Cori enjoys incorporating themes of emotional healing and social justice into her works. She is currently living in the Los Angeles area and has been published in UCLA’s FEM Newsmagazine, UCLA’s Westwind Journal of the Arts, Cornell’s Rainy Day Magazine, and she recently won the Editorial Choice Award for her research paper in Audeamus Academic Journal.

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