December 3, 2018

How One Mom Tried to Reunite Migrant Families

by Without Fail

Background show artwork for Without Fail

When Julie Schweitert Collazo heard that migrant families were being separated at the U.S.-Mexico, she wanted to do something to help. But how could she, just one person, thousands of miles away from the border, actually make a difference? Julie tells Alex how she found one tiny way that she could help—and how doing that one tiny thing turned into something much larger than she ever could have imagined.

To learn more about Julie and Immigrant Families Together, check out

Without Fail is hosted by Alex Blumberg and produced by Molly Messick and Sarah Platt. Devon Taylor and Alex Blumberg edited this episode. The episode was mixed by Jarrett Floyd, Catherine Anderson and Peter Leonard. Music by Bobby Lord.

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<<theme music>>

ALEX: From Gimlet Media, I’m Alex Blumberg and this is Without Fail, the show where I talk with entrepreneurs, artists, athletes, visionaries of all kinds about their successes, and their failures, and what they’ve learned from both. 

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So I think a lot of us have maybe had this feeling. A feeling that goes something like: The world is going in a direction I don’t like, and I feel powerless to change it. It’s this sort of scary, impotent feeling. And I think people have this feeling no matter what our beliefs are, or our political persuasions, or our values. I’m really worried about climate change, or I’m really worried about the legalization of marijuana, or I’m really worried about my country going to war against an enemy I don’t actually fear, or I’m really worried about my country NOT going to war against an enemy I view as an existential threat. 

But no matter what we have the feeling about, the universal part of is that the worry feels hard to address. There are these huge forces, government, multinational corporations, powerful billionaires urging things in one direction, and here I am, one regular person, one of 10 billion. What can I possibly do. 

Well, today, we’re going to hear from a person who also felt that way. She saw things happening that terrified her, and saddened her, and enraged her, that she felt powerless to stop. And then she happened to hear about this one tiny thing that she could do. One small thing that she, a regular individual person, could address. And that one tiny thing turned into something much bigger than she ever could have imagined. 

Who this guest is in just one moment, but let’s start with what it was that terrified her and enraged her, and that she felt powerless to do anything about. It started last summer, June of 2018.

<<NBC: Heartbreaking images from the southern border are sparking growing outrage. Thousands of migrant children being separated from their parents.

ABC: (PROTESTS) Outrage is growing over the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy, separating migrant children from their parents

NBC: And now, newly released audio, you can hear their desperation. (CHILDREN CRYING) Kids crying for their parents...>>

<<Julie: Everyday is just this pile on of new trauma and new policies and new information that were just impossible to keep up with and absorb and the outrage became more desperate.>>

This is my guest, Julie Schwietert Collazo. She lives in New York with her husband and three young children. She’s a freelance writer. And like a lot of people, she was watching the news of family separations at the border with shock and dismay. And having that feeling, I want to do something to help. But what.

And then one day.


She heard a story on the radio, WNYC, her local public radio station. The host was talking to a lawyer, on the border, who was representing a woman from Guatemala who was separated from her three kids...The woman he was representing was named Jenny Gonzalez Garcia. And he was talking about her case, and then he said this: 

<<WNYC tape: I think that the only possibility of reuniting Yeni Gonzalez-Garcia with her three children is she gets bonded out, comes to New York, and picks up her children and...>

Alex: It turns out that when people are crossing the border and caught and put in detention, there’s a way for them to get out of detention if somebody pays their bond. These bonds can vary in amount but it’s essentially like bail. If somebody pays their bond, the detained person is free to go and pursue their asylum case outside of a detention center. And that fact—the fact that somebody could be bonded out of a detention center—that struck Julie.  

Julie: It was definitely my light bulb moment where I thought OK if it's really as simple as raising money for somebody's bond and then getting them to New York, I feel like within my network of outraged friends who keep saying we're really angry about this policy and what can we do what can we do that I can leverage that outrage and say here is something that we actually can do concretely tangibly do with somebody for somebody.

Alex: On this podcast we have heard the word leverage a lot. I don't think we've ever heard it applied to outrage.

Julie: No

Alex: I think it's a good term to leverage your outrage.

Julie: But it is.

Julie: And I think I think, my rage has absolutely been fuel for everything that I've done the past five months and there are joyful moments in there. But the rage is definitely what keeps me going for sure.

Alex: Yeah. So, so you, so you thought to yourself okay..I know what I want to try to do. I want to try to help this one woman with her bond, help her get to New York right?

Julie: Yeah. The initial idea was one person.

Alex: Right

And so I had this idea and my husband who I've been married to for 15 years he always says to me now he's like every time you come to me and you say I have an idea I get really scared. And so I went to him that night on the night of June 25th and I said I have this idea. This is what I want to do. This is what I know that we can do. Are you in. Because if you're not you know we can't do this. We have to be all and we can't start and then be half assed about it and decide we're not going to see this through. And he's a refugee from Cuba who came here in 1980. And he said Yeah I'm in. 

Julie: And so I called the attorney the following Monday. And he's a DUI attorney by practice.

Alex: So he represents people who have gotten a DUI. What was he doing representing this client?

Julie: Jenny her three children she had told them on the way to the United States. Look if for some reason we ever get separated, this is a family members phone number in North Carolina. Call them and tell them where you are. And so when they did end up getting separated one of the kids remembered the phone number and called the aunt and told them

Alex: the family member was an aunt who lived in North Carolina.

Julie: Mhm. And I believe that the aunt then googled Spanish speaking lawyer near Cayuga which is where the kids were and Jose was the first person who popped up. But he himself is originally from Nicaragua. So he's bilingual and he said that he would take her case on. And so I called him, he answered on the first ring and I said Look I heard you on the radio last week and it seems to me that this is as quote unquote easy as raising the money for your client and bringing her here. And is that something that you would be interested in and he just started laughing. And he said of course we would be interested. She has no way to pay this bond. And so I set up the first Go Fund Me for her on June 25th. 

Alex: So he said yes. And then and then you set up the go fund me page?

Julie: Yes. 

Alex: How did you go about even doing. I mean h ow did you get people to go to it. What did you do?

Julie: Just really through social media and doing exactly what I told Jose I wanted to do which was saying to friends if you've been angry for the past year and a half there's something that we can actually do that will concretely result in change for one person. And they responded really quickly and they shared it. And so it's just I think we all have mixed feelings about Facebook right. But I have to say that in this process social media and Facebook in particular has been so essential to sharing stories and fundraising. Absolutely.

Alex: Facebook is good at outrage networks.

Julie: Right. It is.

Alex: When did you find out what the bond was.

Julie: The day after I sent the Go Fund Me. So Tuesday June 26th.

Alex: OK. How much was it.

Julie: Seven thousand five hundred

Alex: Seven thousand. And within three days you’d raised 50 thousand dollars… OK. And then talked to the lawyer, said we got the money. What did Jose say?

Julie: He kind of couldn't believe it. And so we went down I went down to immigration here in Manhattan you can pay an immigration bond anywhere in the United States at any immigration office. So I went downtown, I paid the bond, let him know that that had been paid that she was ready to be released.

Alex: What did you know about her and her story.

Julie: So her oldest son was of the age where gang members in Guatemala start to recruit children. There were signs that that was likely to start happening soon. And so I think as any mother would do she decided I don’t want to stick around to see how this ends. I want to get out while I can and make sure that my kids are safe. And so the reason that they left Guatemala was fear of gang violence.

Alex: At the time how long had she been in detention?

Julie: At least two months.

Alex: And two months ago was the last time that she'd seen her kids.

Julie: Yes.

Alex: So like you pay the bond. And then what happens to Jenny? Who meets her at the gate. What's going on there now?

Julie: So we were very concerned about putting a traumatized mother who doesn't speak English and who has been through this system of challenging situations with people in uniform. We were very concerned about putting her on a plane. We thought it's going to be really difficult to get through TSA, the other piece is that immigration retains whatever photo identification whether it's a passport or national I.D. And so when the person is released they are not given that identification back. And so she doesn't have a photo I.D. to get on a plane and we just thought this is going to be really difficult to negotiate and we don't want to subject her to any more trauma. And so we developed this rather ambitious idea to do a cross-country trip. There was nothing romantic about it. The idea was solely to make sure that she wasn't on some mode of transportation where a uniformed official could intervene and cause her confusion at best and harm at worst. So a wonderful woman from our team was in charge of finding volunteer drivers to patch together a route across the U.S. from Arizona to New York. 

Alex: When when was the first time you spoke with her?

Julie: So I spoke with her when she was released from detention as she was getting in the car for the first leg of the journey.

Alex: And what'd you say? She's on a cell phone or something? A volunteer’s cell phone.

Julie: Yeah she was on a cellphone.   

Alex: And did you lay out the plan like here's the plan. Like we're going to have a series of drivers.

Julie:  Yes.

Alex: To get you from from Arizona to New York.

Julie: And I explain why I said you know I know this is going to be a long journey and you've already been through a lot but you are with safe people who care about you and who care about your children. And that we would meet her in New York and make sure that she was able to see her kids right away.

Alex: So. OK so she is. She's so you've set up like this chain of volunteers across the across the country. how long were each was each driver taking?

Julie: We were a little bit concerned about the timing mainly because we didn't know like to will she want to rest? She want to stop and eat? and so and we hadn't done this before. So we were kind of figuring out a lot of things as as we went. She really if she could have had drivers who would just drive straight through into New York she would have done that. She just wanted to get here. Yeah. And so I think there were several legs that were at least nine hours. So she the drivers were amazing. They would just like push on through until she wanted to stop. And then they would coordinate with the next driver where to do the handoff.

Alex: And to the next person would show up with their car, transfer the luggage. And that was that was it. Yeah it wasn't any luggage actually was there much?

Julie: I think she had maybe one bag.

ALEX: As Jenny and her single bag made the trip from the Eloy Detention Center in Arizona to New York City where her kids were... her story became national news.

<<REPORTER ONE: After 43 days in the custody of US immigration authorities, Yeni Gonzalez was released on bail. 

MADDOW: Coordinating a nine person driving relay to drive Yeni Gonzalez from Eloy Arizona to New York over the course of four days>>

CUOMO: She is making her way to New York to find her kids. >>

Journalists rode along on the Jenny’s trip, telling her story. NY State Senators and other politicians like NJ Senator Cory Booker, and then New York’s Public Advocate Letitia James met with her. 

<<JAMES: Hola, Letitia James. God Bless You. Bienvenidos.>>

By the time Jeni arrived in New York, four days after she was released from the Eloy Detention Center in Arizona, there’s a crowd of people holding signs, waiting in Central Park to greet her.

<<cars honking, cheers>>

Julie: Well I have to say the those welcome stations were incredibly moving. Many people showed up in Central Park. I mean children with signs and she was just extremely touched and overwhelmed that people cared. She came to my home after that and we had dinner we had a friend in the neighborhood who had offered an apartment for her to stay in. And then I believe it was the next day that we went to begin the process of getting her to see her kids.

Alex: So what does that. What was that process?

Julie: It's very frustrating.

Alex: And I would have thought that that was the easy part.

Julie: You would think so. What I very quickly learned was that raising the money, posting bond, and getting somebody to where they needed to be to reunite with their kids and their family was the easy part. And everything that came after was the hardest part. 

ALEX: After the break… Julie and Jenny take on the hardest part. They try to reunite Jenny with her kids.


ALEX: Welcome back to Without Fail and my conversation with Julie Schwietert Collazo (coh-YAH-zoh). When we left off, Jenny had made it to New York after people she'd never met drove her across the country from Arizona. And apparently, that was the easy part.

Jenny now had to go through the legal process of regaining custody of her three kids. 

The way authorities were doing these family separations was if the kids were under 13, when they were taken from their families, they were put into the foster care system. So Jenny’s kids had been taken to New York and put in the care of a foster care service provider called the Cayuga Centers. 

To regain custody, Jenny would have to prove that she had a safe place to stay and enough money to support her kids—which are both tough things to prove when you aren’t allowed to work, and have just left a detention facility. In the meantime, her kids were stuck in the foster care system.

Julie: So they placed kids with foster families in New York. And so the kids would sleep at the family's homes at night and they would be brought to Cayuga by foster families in the morning for a day of activities. 

Alex: Did you go with her to see her kids for the first time?

Julie: I did. She was able to see the kids that day we were not able to where we were not allowed to be with her only the parent is allowed to see the children and yeah it was just I think extremely emotional for all of them. And her daughter had given her.. when they were separated. Her daughter had had some butterfly patches on her jeans and she had given her mom a butterfly a patch from a jeans. And so she gave that back. There was a lot of sort of symbolic, um, she called us in the middle of the meeting and asked us if we could go get McDonalds and bring Happy Meals for the kids. She just really wanted to provide for them and to make up for lost time. 

Alex: When she came back what was her. What was she doing what was she saying.

Julie: She was crying she was elated to have seen them and to spend time with them. she came out very happy and that happiness within a week turned into extreme frustration I think what became very difficult for Jenny and for her kids was that there was no consistency at Cuyaga go once she was allowed to see the kids some days the visit might be one hour some days the visit might be five hours. Some days there wouldn't be a visit at all and she would show up there expecting to see the kids and they would turn her away.

Alex: At what point when did that finally resolve. Did it did it finally resolve?

Julie: So it resolved on July 13th. 

Alex: OK. So a couple of weeks after.

Julie: It was a couple of weeks it felt much longer. Yeah. And so she was called to Cayuga and was told that her kids would be released to her that day.

Alex: Where is she now with her kids.

Julie: She is in North Carolina now. She wanted to be with family.

Alex: OK. And so she's there now and she's just waiting to see what’s going to happen with her claim. You did it. That was your goal you were going to help this one woman. But as during the process of that you got a bunch of you got calls saying like hey there's a lot more women that you could help.

Julie: Yeah Jose was calling me and saying wow I can't believe that you really pulled that off.  He said I hope that you understand that you're public enemy number one at Eloy because you've given these women hope. The people who were detained they had felt that nobody on the outside knew what was happening to them. And so, when Jenny was released, the facility was put on lockdown so that other women would not know there was somebody being released. And so when she was released and the word did pass quickly even though the facility was on lockdown, women felt like OK now people know that there is something going on and we have a chance of getting out too.

And so Jose said look Jenny has passed along the names and alien numbers and details of a number of other women with whom she was detained to have bond offers. Could you pay them could you do the same thing for them that you did for Jenny? And so we thought, sure, why not?

Alex: Jose put Julie in touch with more people, other people who were detained started calling asking for help, and suddenly Julie’s goal of helping one woman reunite with her kids turned into 5 parents and then 25, and then 50. The more families they worked with, the more their profile grew. The more money continued to pour into the gofundme page. Volunteers continued to come on board. As of today, there are over 50 families that they’ve bonded out of detention and reunited with their children. And they have a network of hundreds of volunteers. And they even have a name. They are called Immigrant Families Together. And they are formalizing in other ways too.

Alex: When did you. Was there an official decision like OK this is going to be what I do now?

Julie: Not until about two weeks ago. 

Alex: Oh.

Julie: Um, so yeah I mean I think I have been a little bit gun shy about making a full commitment to this becoming the thing that I do now. Even though it is a full time actually more than full time job while I try to maintain my real full time job and raise my own kids.

Alex: So you were doing your own full time job during this whole time.

Julie: Yeah. So I'm, I'm a freelance writer and editor and translator so the freelance piece of this has made the the work with immigrant families together possible because I've been able to juggle and hide from clients what else I'm doing during the day. 

Alex: how much of how much of your day are you spending on this

Julie: like 12 hours a day easily.

Alex: Oh my goodness.

Julie: Yeah. We've been incredibly fortunate because we've raised nearly a million dollars. And within four months we had raised nearly a million dollars and I tell established nonprofits that and their eyes just pop out of their heads are like How did you do that. I don't know. We just did.  It got to a point in the past couple of weeks where one thing is that we have attracted so many donors who would like to give large sums of money. But they obviously don't want to do that without us being a 501 c 3.

Alex: They don't want to just give it to you.

Julie: Right. Exactly which is basically what is essentially what the fundraising has been for the past five months is that it's literally money coming to me going into my bank account which is terrifying. 

Alex: And then you pay it.

Julie: And my accountant who's terrified too.


Alex: So you just must be like writing a bunch of checks.

Julie: I am.

Alex: Are you literally.

Julie: No literally checks. Yes. I sat down yesterday and did a lot of check reimbursements and PayPal payments and Venmo payments. Yeah.

Julie: So we we I decided last week actually to go ahead and set up a 501 c3. Even though that terrifies me because I—we've been so successful as a group of people because we were able to make decisions really quickly with very few qualifying criteria. Right. So we've had many 501 c3's call us and say how is it that you're doing everything that you're doing?

And the answer is we don't have to sit around and have a board meeting. We don't have to seek approval or determine somebody's relative worthiness to receive our help we receive a request. We look at the resources that we have at the moment and we decide yes we're going to help this person and we're going to figure out if we don't have the resources. We're going to figure out how to do it. And so my concern with establishing a nonprofit was and remains can you stay that nimble? And really the current moment calls for that. So but yes so now we're at this crossroads where we yes have decided to formalize and see what happens and I'm a little bit terrified about that.

Alex: You're, you're scaling. You’re scaling your organization

Julie: We're scaling, which is not what I wanted to do. So we have teams of volunteers all over the U.S. now. And so what we've tried to do is set up a team for each family that is comprised of eight to 12 people and each of the people on that team takes responsibility for an aspect of the family's well-being. So one person will be the legal point person. One will be the medical point person one will deal with all things related to school and so on. 

Alex: and these are all volunteers 

Julie: All volunteers 

Alex: So it’s like an 8 person team per family. Wow. 

Julie: And it is astonishing because you would think with that amount of people power it would be easy but it's not. It's an enormous amount of work. And so the needs are so profound and so extensive and as families come to trust the volunteers and to trust us they reveal more needs. And so it really feels like the needs like there's no bottom. You know to that it's like a endless well.

My phone number and my husband's phone number circulate are circulating around detention facilities and people call us literally every day our address has gotten into detention facilities and people send us letters everyday I have letters in my purse right now that I got yesterday from detention facilities in California and they're asking for help.

Alex: Would you mind reading one?

Julie: I don't think I've even opened them yet.

Alex: Yeah. 

Julie: OK. So this one is actually from a woman who has a five thousand dollar bond. She has some family in the U.S. She has some family from Guatemala. They've been calling me and texting me, regularly.

Alex: Can I see this this? This just, this is from like the number they put this is from you know what's their name. But it's like the address.

Alex: Adelanto California is that like a detention center in California. 

Julie: Yes. Adelanto is a detention facility in Adelanto California. 

Alex: And it's addressed to Francisco who is your husband right. Yeah. Okay.

Julie: So the first page of this letter is a drawing that she's made that says bendiciones

en su hogar Julie y familia. So blessings in your home Julie and family.

Julie: And then she has sent a three page letter.

Alex: Can you just read read a couple of lines of what she says.

Julie: Sure. So the first two paragraphs are actually bible verses. And then she starts... <<SPANISH>>

Alex: And so, what is she saying?

Julie: She says, May God who may God shower infinite blessings upon you and your family, Julie. The reason for my letter is to thank you for your support in paying the bond of my friend Ana. It was a gesture that was so noble on your part. Please believe that God will recompense you for this gesture that so humane because only God and ourselves who have lived this experience as detained people understand how much he has given us strength to continue going forward for our children.

Alex: And so she's just writing a letter of thank you. She's not asking for anything for herself or is there something that she's asking for herself as well. Does she have children that she's separated from.

Julie: She does have children. And she goes on to thank me for a letter that I wrote her. I try to write everybody back. I don't always but I try. And she is asking if we are able to help pay her bond which is five thousand dollars. Right.

Alex: And she is and she's separated from her children as well as? she is.

Julie: She is

Alex: You started this journey sort of out of outrage. And has there been as you've been going on it now that you know what you know are are you are you more or less outraged than you were in the beginning.

Julie: I'm at least as outraged as I was in the beginning probably more because I mean so many reasons. For example just this week we posted the bond for a woman who was a mom and grandmother. She had a U.S. citizen family member cross a 4 year old from her family across the border at San Ysidro in California. The child was crossing with this U.S. citizen family member from Mexico to the United States. Immigration took the 4 year old away, said she's an unaccompanied minor. The family lives in Texas and they have shipped this child to Maryland and put her into Bethany Christian Services foster care. And so what I don't understand is any of that. None of that makes sense to me. She is coming with a family member to a family member to a very united family who wants to and is able to provide for her. So I don't understand why she's considered unaccompanied. I also don't understand why you would ship a child literally across the country.

Alex: A 4 year old. 

Julie: A four year old. And think that that somehow in anybody's best interest.

Alex: Yeah. 

Alex: I mean is there. My takeaway is it doesn't seem like there is, there isn't a plan. Everything seems pretty ad hoc

Julie: I would agree with that.I don't feel like this trauma was necessary. I feel like there are other ways to act and enforce immigration policies that do what our government would like to do while protecting people's humanity.


Alex: That wraps up my conversation with Julie Schwietert Collazo.

Without Fail is hosted by me and produced by Molly Messick and Sarah Platt. It is edited by me, Nazanin Rafsanjani and Devon Taylor. 

Jarrett Floyd, Catherine Anderson and Peter Leonard mixed this episode. Music by Bobby Lord.

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