July 5, 2018 By Nathaly Pesantez
Behind a recent and ever-growing campaign to reunite mothers and children separated at the southern U.S. border is one local mom—who started it all from her home in Long Island City.
Julie Schwietert Collazo, a 40-year-old writer, translator, and former arts therapist living in Dutch Kills for 15 years, leads a group of volunteers who have been pouring hours of work toward bailing out migrant mothers held at ICE detention centers and organizing for their travel across the country to rejoin with their children.
The core group of about 20 volunteers, now referred to as Immigrant Families Together, have already helped one mother, Yeni González Garcia, reunite with her children. González Garcia had illegally crossed into the U.S. from Mexico with her three children in May, and was held in a detention center in Arizona while her kids were all sent to New York City’s Cayuga Centers.
The group’s effort to bail Gonzalez Garcia out and connect her to her kids, however, began just over a week ago, when Schwietert Collazo tuned into WNYC and heard Jose Xavier Orochena, the migrant mother’s lawyer, explain the situation to a reporter.
The Long Island City mom, who mostly writes about Latin America and Latino communities in the United States, was already on her way to a protest at an ICE facility in Manhattan, but returned to her car when she realized the event had dissipated.
“I got back in my car and I heard the report about family separation,” Schwietert Collazo told the LIC Post. “What her lawyer said was that she’s in Arizona, and the only thing that stands between her and seeing her kids in New York City is the money.”
Schwietert Collazo implicitly understood that the $7,500 bail set for González Garcia might as well have been in the millions. “She doesn’t have the money to do that,” she said.
Still, she was inspired to start a GoFundMe for González Garcia, given the number of supporters she knew would help pitch in. A drive she helped start a couple of weeks ago to gather toys and supplies for separated children in New York City, for example, saw boxes upon boxes of donated items to the cause.
“It was clear to me that there was momentum,” she said.
Four days after the WNYC report, on June 25, Schwietert Collazo reached out to Orochena, González Garcia’s lawyer, to talk about her plan.
“I said, ‘Look, I think we can get a critical mass of people to donate. Would you be interested in that?’”
Orochena, in shock, laughed at first, but told her that he would “absolutely” be interested in the plan.
So she launched the “Yeni Gonzalez Support Team Fund” on the same day, and in less than 24 hours, hundreds of people had contributed over $7,500—enough to bail Gonzalez Garcia out.
“You are all proof that making a difference is possible,” Schwietert Collazo wrote on the GoFundMe page.
Just last Thursday, after 43 days in the detention center, González Garcia was finally released, but next came her trek from Arizona to New York City, where a group of nine drivers, all connected to and organized by the core volunteer group, agreed to drive her city by city to be reunited with her kids.
On Monday evening, González Garcia finally finished her trip across the states, ending up in Queens, where she would be staying with volunteers until her case with her children was sorted through.
Schwietert Collazo, who had organized a welcoming rally for González Garcia in Court Square that evening, immediately hugged her when she emerged from a volunteer driver’s silver suburban. It was the first time the two had met.
“It felt like a gigantic relief,” Schwietert Collazo recalled. “I realized we had done it. We brought her safely. But there was also an enormous sense that that the challenges were just beginning.”
While González Garcia was able to see her kids on Tuesday morning for the first time since separating, it is unclear what lies in the future for her and her children.
Schwietert Collazo said the first step is for González Garcia to regain custody of her children by passing the Cayuga Center’s strict and backlogged background check.
In addition, relatives in North Carolina had already started a sponsorship application to have the three children, ages 10, 8, and 5, under their custody—weeks before Immigrant Families Together’s efforts. But a green lighted sponsorship application poses other factors for González Garcia to consider.
Still, Schwietert Collazo and the group are committed to providing her with all she needs. Funds for González Garcia’s case, for example, continue to flow in to cover other expenses related to her situation, with close to $46,000 from roughly 800 donors raised as of press time.
“It’s really important that it’s not just about raising the money,” she said. “It was about forming a loving community of people in Queens who would agree to be here for her for the long run—finding people who would accompany her to appointments, cook for her—so she wasn’t coming into multiple traumatic situations.”
The Immigrant Families United leader also insists that the fight is not over. Just yesterday, “to capture the momentum of Independence Day”, Schwietert Collazo created GoFundMe pages for two additional women held in detention centers in Arizona whose children have been transferred to other states.
In a few hours, the $15,000 bond for each mother was met.
Schwietert Collazo will continue to put in 18 to 20 hours per day on the project as she helps arrange cross-country travel for the two women, maintain contact with their lawyers on their cases, coordinate with other volunteers (also mostly moms with young children), and respond to dozens of media outlets and elected officials tapping into the group’s efforts.
Her non-stop energy, she says, comes from the need to act quickly against the Trump administration’s abusive polices. The support of her husband–who himself spent time in a detention center after fleeing Cuba decades ago–and her three children, ages 8, 4, and 3, have also kept her apace.
“My kids are amazing, but it does take a toll—they’ve been basically feeding themselves cereal two to three times a day,” she said. “But I said to my husband when we first started talking about this idea, ‘You understand that we have to go all the way in, and we can’t pull back?’ He understood that, and everyone has made tremendous sacrifices.”
Immigrant Families United is also working toward creating a “replication toolkit” so others across the country can tap into their networks and follow the steps Schwietert Collazo has taken to help detained mothers reunite with their children.
“it’s been a really miraculous experience,” she said, adding that, “There really is a place for everyone to participate in this effort.”