Viral photo helped immigrant advocacy group raise $20 million

Group helps immigrants and their families

SAN ANTONIO, Texas - For over 20 days, his 1-year-old son had diarrhea.

He'd had it ever since they arrived at the Karnes County Residential Center in Texas, an ICE detention facility built to detain families apprehended at the border, just steps from the county jail.

The father had come from Honduras after a gang threatened to kill him. But he felt helpless watching his son suffer. The baby wasn't eating or sleeping, and he'd also developed a cough and a runny nose that wouldn't go away.

"My son cannot eat the food served at Karnes. He neither receives a special, age-appropriate diet, nor a diet specific for his health condition," the father said, according to a tweet. "All residents are served the same meals and no accommodations are made for serious medical and dietary needs."

As for the doctors, he said they weren't helping, instead telling him to force-feed his son.

This was in March. But four days after a Texas-based nonprofit tweeted about the boy's plight, the family was freed.

How? Well, it started with a viral Facebook fundraiser on behalf of the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, or RAICES.


Zero to $20 million in about a week


Last year, Charlotte and Dave Willner started a Facebook fundraiser after they saw the viral photo of a 2-year-old child from Honduras crying as her mother was searched and detained by U.S. Border Patrol.

Their original goal was $1,500, with the money going to RAICES, a nonprofit in Texas that gives free legal services to immigrants and refugees.

Two days after they created the fundraiser, the campaign had raised over $6 million.

They set a new goal of $8 million. It surpassed that too.

What we know about RAICES, the group raising money to reunite separated immigrant families

In just over a week, the campaign raised more than $20 million. Along with other donations outside of the individual campaign, more than $25 million went to RAICES, all over the course of just a few days. The fundraiser became the largest single campaign in Facebook history.

Jonathan Ryan, CEO of RAICES, has been with the organization for 11 years. He told CNN that last summer's campaign was unprecedented in its magnitude. The staff was euphoric at the time, but only intermittently.

"Most of our energy was focused on doing the work in real time, which continued almost unperturbed by that reality, by that phenomenon," he said.

It's been one year since the viral fundraiser. Without the money, cases like the sick baby may never have seen the light of day.

But how exactly has RAICES been using all that money?


RAICES tripled their workforce in less than a year


Before the fundraiser, RAICES had 68 employees. Now, the organization has over 200, more than tripling the size of their staff in less than a year. They are the largest pro-bono legal services provider in Texas and possibly even in the country.

They have multiple offices across Texas and the region and have expanded to Los Angeles, Arizona and New York.

They created two new departments: social services and advocacy. Social services helps with non-legal issues, like resettlement, migrant rights and basic needs like clothes and shoes. The advocacy department, meanwhile, focuses on ways to change the system at large. There's also a new litigation team which collaborates with organizations like the ACLU to file lawsuits on systemic issues within detention centers and in other spaces.

A significant part of the budget went toward immigration bonds and getting people out of detention. This year alone, the organization said they paid $1.9 million in bonds, helping 238 people get out of detention.


Their impact has grown, too


The organization says all this money and expansion is translating into a bigger impact.

Erika Andiola is the chief advocacy officer for RAICES. Her job didn't even exist before the fundraiser. Neither did her entire department. With the development, she said the group has been able to have a more significant impact on a national level. In some ways, that's been the best part of having more money.

"I think we've been able to have a much bigger influence around the conversations about immigrants," she told CNN. Andiola called their efforts "a counter-narrative" to the Trump administration's messaging about immigrants at the southern US border.

That was seen in RAICES' role in freeing the sick baby and his father from Karnes, for example. Without the clout they received from the fundraiser, and their new ability to draw attention from those in Congress, the story may have ended differently.


But money alone isn't enough


Ryan said they knew RAICES' new fortunes would change their ability to respond to the crisis at the border, especially as immigration becomes an increasingly volatile issue. He said he's deeply thankful for the donations, both last summer and since then, but money alone does very little.

"We had money, what we needed were people," he said.

But the group is staying realistic. Even with the big fundraiser, Ryan said the US government will always have more money than them.

"This will always be an asymmetric battle. We are always going to have to be smarter than the opposition. We are always going to be underfunded," he said.

But Ryan added that he sees donations as acts of protests and vowed that RAICES will keep fighting to serve immigrant families.

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