Last month, a formerly obscure Texas legal charity struck the jackpot. Millions of Americans, horrified by families being torn apart at the border, started sharing and donating to a campaign to raise money for RAICES, the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services in Texas. The main Facebook fundraiser ended up bringing in almost $21 million, and I was very optimistic that the money would be put to good use, reuniting families and helping some of the neediest people in America.
Since then, RAICES has made headlines more deliberately. The group called a press conference in Washington to ask the Trump administration to accept a $20 million bond check to free thousands of immigrant mothers, rather than requiring individuals to be bailed out one at a time; they also rejected a $250,000 donation from Salesforce, which is refusing to cancel its contracts with Customs and Border Protection.
I spoke to Jennifer Falcon, head of communications at RAICES, to ask her about her organization’s tumultuous month.
Felix Salmon: Congratulations on suddenly becoming the center of attention. Maybe not particularly intentionally.
Jennifer Falcon: We are probably the leading expert. RAICES has been reuniting families for over 30 years now. It’s just something that nobody really talked about, but it’s actually very common that families get separated and get lost and shuffled around the immigration system. It definitely wasn’t something we were looking for, but I think we’re the appropriate people to speak about what’s going on and how broken the system is.
You say you’ve been doing this for over 30 years, but in terms of your size and your revenues, it’s been ramping up a lot over the past four or five years.
The tension really starts about four years ago. And things really got crazy when Trump implemented his zero tolerance policy.
Tell me first about the cash windfall you got. How much money was it?
The Willners’ Facebook fundraiser is almost at $21 million now. And there are probably thousands of little fundraisers. We’ve seen people having bake sales all across the country. There are people just sending checks for $50. We haven’t even been able to keep up with all of the donations—we’ve had to hire more staff. I think we’re getting close to $30 million all told.
You literally have been given so much money that you don’t even know exactly how much money it is.
Which is a good problem to have. And if you’re using this in large part for bonds, then that can last a long time. The money eventually comes back to you and you can sort of rinse and repeat.
That is our hope, that we can use this for the future and keep helping people out on a much larger scale than we have been before. [The money raised by] the Willners was for family reunification and for bonding a family out. It started at $1,500 and spiked to $21 million. So, you know, we definitely want to use that money for bonds.
What else do you need? What are the bottlenecks?
We also want to help resettlement. Even after reunification, these families have been through extremely traumatic events. They’re going to need grief counseling. They’re going to need counseling for a long time, especially young children who really can’t even comprehend what’s happened to them. And then they’ll need flights and travel expenses to be paid for. Some of them are coming with nothing. They need clothing, they need toiletries, short-term housing, pro bono legal services. We definitely want to make sure that we help people get legal services as they’re being released so that when they are going for check-ins, we’re there to help them and advocate for them. Because this is a very complicated process. They need attorneys to be able to help them navigate through it.
The other thing the Willners’ campaign did was raise your national profile. You’ve been embracing that: You went to Washington and asked them to just accept one big check to bail out thousands of people in one go. You’ve written an open letter to Salesforce declining a substantial donation. Would it be fair to say that you’re trying to use your newfound prominence not just in terms of spending money directly but also in communicating to a much broader audience nationwide and trying to keep this issue alive?
We have ramped up our advocacy. There is an issue that people don’t understand. It’s very complicated. We have tried to use our voice to amplify what is going on. With the $20 million check, what we wanted to show is that we have a team of 15 people working to bond people out. We’re bonding out at most 15 people a day, and it sometimes takes days and several trips to [the Department of Homeland Security] to be able to post bond for somebody. We wanted to show them that, yes, we have $20 million, but that’s only enough to bond out 2,000 mothers. And it would take us well over a year to be able to bond those mothers out, if we’re working at the pace we are right now.
What’s your expectation, in terms of how long this process is going to take and how long it’s going to take you to be able to use that $20 million?
At this rate, it would take well over a year to bond out everybody we need to. We are trying to bring in more volunteers and more staff to be able to bond more people out at once. But we also went to Washington because we wanted to bring up that this is a larger conversation about reform and how complicated the bond process is. We need our elected officials to step up. There needs to be reform for this process. We don’t believe detention is the way. There are no benefits in detention. All we see are abuses of human rights, trauma, heartache.
So in that sense, you’re becoming more of an advocacy organization?
We are creating an arm for advocacy in our organization, but we are still a legal organization. Our main goal is to provide low-cost and pro bono legal services to people seeking asylum. Advocacy is something that we’ve always done, and right now we’re adding a little bit more to that arm of things.
Do you think that you just spent $250,000 on advocacy by refusing the donation from Salesforce?
No, I think that we made a stand. And all the millions of people worldwide who have donated to us put us in a position to be able to refuse that money.
I guess that’s something else the windfall gave you—the ability to turn around to someone like Salesforce and say, “We don’t need to accept this if you are doing something we consider unspeakable.”
Honestly, I think it’s something that our team would have decided even if we didn’t have the windfall.
So I guess there are two threads to what you’re doing: The core of it is the legal advocacy, trying to bail people out, and then you’ve also got the public advocacy. You’re saying that ultimately this is a problem that can only be solved at the political level, and so we need to get politicians to change things. I think that those two things are absolutely aligned.
Going to Washington was our first action, and that was just the first step. We wanted them to know who we are, and that we’re not backing down. We’re going to keep applying pressure and pushing in every way that we can.