An outpouring of help as plight of migrant children tugs at Americans' hearts

A young boy in a van headed for a detention center in Texas
A young boy in a van headed for a detention center in Texas Los Angles Times/TNS

The story of migrant children wrenched from their parents at the U.S. border is one that hits many people in very personal ways and has unleashed an outpouring of sympathy for their plight and a desire to get involved in finding a solution.

More than 285,000 people — parents, immigrants and people who trace their ancestry to the founding of the country — have contributed to a Facebook Fundraiser, "Reunite an immigrant parent with their child." Started by a Bay Area couple last Saturday, it sailed by a goal of $5 million Tuesday afternoon and by Wednesday had collected $11.4 million toward its new target of $15 million.

The money will go to RAICES (Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services), a Texas nonprofit that offers free and low-cost legal services to immigrants and refugees, to help pay bonds so parents can be released from detention and to provide legal representation for children in Texas.

For Warren Zinn, a Coconut Grove lawyer and real estate developer, reports that parents were sometimes told their children were going to be bathed when they were actually being separated from them, pushed him over the edge. "Upset would be an understatement," he said. "I'm a descendant of Holocaust victims, and that reference was just too close to the image of people being taken to the showers in concentration camps."

So he got in touch with Texas legal services groups working with separated families and offered to help. "I'm willing to do anything they might need — file motions, do research, proof pleadings," said Zinn. "There is always an extra hour or two in the day to write a motion or to help out. I'll find the time."

RAICES has already referred one Florida case to him, but he said he'd like to do more. Zinn said he's reached out to other Florida lawyers that he knows are sympathetic to the children's plight and challenged them to help, too. "I have no doubt if one of the Texas organizations asked, I could get a couple dozen top-level attorneys from South Florida to help."

A girl held on to her mother on June 13 as they waited in Tijuana to request political asylum in the United States. More than 3,000 children have been separated from parents seeking asylum. The Trump administration missed a second deadline to reunite them. Gregory Bull Associated Press

Broward paralegal Ghazal Tajalli and her boss, attorney Michelle Levy, want to help too. "No human being is illegal. They're coming here to protect their children," Tajalli said. "I came here from Iran when I was 6 years old and this whole situation makes me feel like I'm not welcome anymore. I really feel so strongly about this."

As the parent of a 16-month-old son and also as a "human with a heart," Levy said she felt compelled to help out.

"My entire Facebook feed now is just about this. I reached out to Lawyers for Good Government and Lawyer Moms of America with offers to help," she said. "I can't just sit back and do nothing. These children are being taken from their parents with no explanation and no understanding of what is going on."

Among the programs asking not only for donations but also legal volunteers to help provide screening services for detained kids is the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project in Harlingen, Texas. But its requirements for volunteers are specific: fluency in Spanish and the ability to spend a month or more working in Harlingen. It's looking for licensed attorneys in good standing or people with a background in social work or immigration services.

A seminar that the Austin Bar Civil Rights and Immigration Section is hosting next Monday to train attorneys to help separated families is already over-subscribed. The Austin Bar said there's a special need for pro bono attorneys to help with the first part of the immigration process — credible fear interviews and bond hearings.

But so many people want to help that some border and legal services agencies seem a bit overwhelmed, Zinn said.

"I don't think some of the agencies are set up to have an influx of pro-bono lawyers at this point. It seems like it is hard to match the supply with the demand. It kind of reminds me of what it's like after a natural disaster and there are a lot of people willing to help out but the infrastructure isn't really set up," Zinn said.

Miami attorney Justin Kaplan, who has offered his services to RAICES and the Immigration Justice Campaign, said he expects the Texas agencies to be able to organize and accept more volunteers over the next few weeks.

"I have a nine-month-old, my first child, so this has really resonated with me," he said. "I never felt compelled to offer my skills pro bono before. I've always contributed with dollars in the past, but in this case more is necessary."

For David and Charlotte Willner, the couple who set up the Facebook "Reunite" fundraiser, the plight of the separated families was personal too. They have a little girl the same age as the Honduran child whose photo is featured on the fundraiser page. The picture shows a little girl dressed in a red shirt and red shoes. She is crying as her mother is detained at the border.

"When I see her face, I see my own daughter's," said Charlotte Willner. "The only thing that separates these two toddlers is an accident of birth — and no child, no parent should be punished for that. We are more similar than we are different. Remember that Americans can still come together to say, 'This is wrong,' and do something about it."

Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi