Silicon Valley Couple Uses Facebook to Raise $3.5M to Help ‘Reunite’ Immigrant Families Separated at Border

A couple who were among Facebook’s first employees have now harnessed the social media platform to raise millions of dollars to bail out and provide legal aid to immigrant families separated at the U.S.-Mexico border.

The “Reunite an immigrant parent with their child” Facebook Fundraiser campaign had garnered more than $3.5 million worth of support as of Monday evening, just three days after the page was created on Saturday — and that number was continuing to rise swiftly.

Charlotte and Dave Willner — who now work at Pinterest and Airbnb, respectively — are donating the money raised to The Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), a Texas-based nonprofit that pays the bond of detained parents and provides legal services to children in Texas’ immigration court system.

The campaign has gone viral amid international uproar over the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy that calls for migrant children to be detained separately from their parents when they illegally cross the border from Mexico, or show up there to seek asylum.

At least 2,000 children were separated from their parents in the first month and a half after the policy was implemented in April, federal officials said last week. The White House has painted it as a necessary measure to deter illegal immigration, while critics have denounced the practice as cruel, inhumane and gratuitous.

The growing firestorm surrounding the issue appears to have helped push the Willners campaign to viral levels of engagement. Many of the more than 82,500 who had donated as of Monday evening seemed eager to have a concrete way to fight back against the policy.

“So thankful to have this chance to help out. I finally feel like I’m not just a bystander and ‘we the people’ have a voice in what is supposed to be a democracy but is slowing morphing into a dictatorship,” one donor, Leena Prasad, wrote on the page.

Another contributor, Carrie Cantalupo Sharp, said donating would help her “sleep a tiny bit better tonight. It helps me feel like I am holding those children in my heart.”

A CNN poll released Monday found only 28 percent of Americans approve of family separation, though a majority of Republicans support it.

A 2-year-old Honduran asylum seeker cries as her mother is searched and detained near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018, in McAllen, Texas. (Credit: John Moore / Getty Images)

A 2-year-old Honduran asylum seeker cries as her mother is searched and detained near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018, in McAllen, Texas. (Credit: John Moore / Getty Images)

The couple behind the campaign told the Mercury News they started it with the goal of raising just $1,500 to bail out one parent detained after crossing the border illegally. Bond for immigrant detainees is typically between $1,500 and $10,000.

But what really pushed them over the edge was a photo by Getty Images photographer John Moore that shows a young girl bawling while her mother is frisked by a Border Patrol agent.

“It was the closest thing we could do to hugging that kid,” Dave Willner told the newspaper.

With a 2-year-old daughter of their own, “When we look at the faces of these children, we can’t help but see our own children’s faces,” his wife, Charlotte, added.

The couple met and fell in love while studying at Bowdoin College in Maine, and both would join the ranks of Facebook’s first 300 employees after graduating in 2006, according to a media release from the private liberal arts school.

While some of the Facebook campaign’s steam has come from larger donations by the Willners’ Silicon Valley connections, the couple told the Mercury News that most give $5 to $10. At one point on Sunday, it was attracting $40,000 an hour, and for a three hours on Monday, $4,000 a minute.

In a tweet Monday, RAICES said “more donations than (it’s) ever had” poured in in recent days, enough to crash the organization’s website. In a Facebook post, they said staff was “occasionally crying around the office all day when we check the fundraising totals.”

“I have no better way to describe it than just absolutely stunned and incredibly grateful because the funds that have been raised will enable us to do so much work,” Jenny Hixon, the director of education and outreach at RAICES, told the Bay Area newspaper.

But she also painted a realistic picture of the family reunification process. It can last weeks or months, and sometimes never comes to fruition if parents are deported while their children remain detained, she said.

And either way, the agony and trauma of being torn apart in the first place is so extreme that “the damage has been done,” she added.