Crying toddler photo sparks $6.8m of help for migrant families

This picture of a two-year-old Honduran child crying as her mother is searched and detained near the US-Mexico border prompted California couple Charlotte and Dave Willner to start a fundraising page that would rapidly become the largest single fundr
This picture of a two-year-old Honduran child crying as her mother is searched and detained near the US-Mexico border prompted California couple Charlotte and Dave Willner to start a fundraising page that would rapidly become the largest single fundraiser in Facebook's history.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
This picture of a two-year-old Honduran child crying as her mother is searched and detained near the US-Mexico border prompted California couple Charlotte and Dave Willner to start a fundraising page that would rapidly become the largest single fundr
REACHING OUT: It was the closest thing we could do to hugging that kid. - MR DAVE WILLNER, (above), with his wife Charlotte, and their daughter. PHOTO: COURTESY WILLNER FAMILY

NEW YORK • It all started with a viral photo of a toddler crying as her mother was detained at the border.

California couple Charlotte and Dave Willner saw it on the Internet, like so many other people, and responded by starting a fundraising page that would rapidly become the largest single fundraiser in Facebook's history.

The couple, who live in the Bay Area, had been struck by the sight of the anguished two-year-old Honduran girl crying as her mother was being searched by a US Border Patrol agent in southern Texas.

The Willners have a two-year-old daughter of their own, and the image made them want to help the families being separated under the Trump administration's "zero-tolerance" immigration policy.

The couple discovered that a lump of cash might thwart the government's plans.

Just like arrested Americans, detained migrant parents can often post bond and simply walk out of jail. They can then, presumably, collect their children from government custody and live in the United States until their court hearings, which are often months away.

Last Saturday, the Willners started a Facebook fundraising page for the Refugee and Immigrant Centre for Education and Legal Services, or Raices, a non-profit organisation that provides low-cost legal defence services to immigrant and refugee families in Texas.

The Willners set a modest goal of US$1,500 (S$2,000) - enough to free a single migrant parent with a relatively low bond.

"It was the closest thing we could do to hugging that kid," Mr Willner told the Mercury News.

Four days later, the Willners had raised more than US$5 million (S$6.8 million) and the sum is climbing, stunning the staff at Raices. At least 130,000 people, including Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, have contributed.

The Willners said the average donation is US$40.

The money has come from Americans disaffected with their government, immigrants who remember their own journeys, and sympathisers from Canada to Switzerland and beyond.

"We've had moments of ecstasy and there have been a lot of tears in response to this outpouring of support," Mr Jonathan Ryan, executive director of Raices, said in a phone interview. "But those moments of joy are curtailed by a realisation of great responsibility."

The money will go towards legal representation for immigrant children and parents in Texas, as well as towards paying parents' bonds so they can be released from detention centres and be reunited with their children.

The Trump administration policy, which aims to criminally prosecute all immigrants crossing the border illegally, has resulted in nearly 2,000 children being taken away from their parents in six weeks.

NYTIMES, WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 21, 2018, with the headline 'Crying toddler photo sparks $6.8m of help for migrant families'. Print Edition | Subscribe