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How Silicon Valley is responding to the immigration crisis

Charlotte and Dave Willner were trying to raise $1,500 on Facebook to help one immigrant parent. So far, they’ve raised $20 million (and counting).

Border Patrol Agents Detain Migrants Near US-Mexico Border John Moore / Getty Images

At first, Charlotte Willner wanted to raise $1,500 on Facebook — enough to let one immigrant parent who had been separated from their child make bond. So, she and her husband Dave Willner set up a fundraiser on Facebook, “Reunite an immigrant parent with their child,” benefitting the Texas nonprofit RAICES.

By the end of the first day, they had raised $120,000. At the time of this writing, they have raised more than $20 million.

“The common question we get now is ‘Oh my gosh, can they use all this money?’ The answer, resoundingly, is yes,” Charlotte said on the latest episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher. “RAICES is, has been from the very beginning, so committed to sharing these resources with every organization in Texas. They can now provide lawyers to a bunch of the pro bono projects. The process of reuniting these families is going to be extremely expensive.”

She and her husband both have large networks on Facebook — about 1,700 friends apiece, which they attributed to having worked together at the company. And a crucial moment in the fundraiser was when one of Charlotte’s acquaintances offered, out of the blue, to match donations up to $25,000 — the first of many match offers to follow.

“That matching process was something that really pushed us into virality,” Charlotte said. “I was able to go to all the people I know who don’t have $25,000, but do have $25, and say ‘Hey, you can donate and have $50 in your name.’ I was astonished at how fast people started sharing it because they knew they were going to be able to have more impact collectively.”

You can listen to Recode Decode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.

The people who’ve donated to the campaign come from all 50 states, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and 26 other countries, Dave Willner said. And many of them are now asking what else they can do; although the Willners and a small army of volunteers are figuring out how to organize volunteers and voter registration drives, they also don’t want to lose focus of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy that brought the donors together.

“We’ve been very mindful to keep what we ask these people to focus on very narrow, so that the consensus can stay very broad,” Dave said. “The position that toddlers should be with their parents is the closest thing I can think to a self-evident truth that exists. The corollary that no toddler should be in prisons, even with their parents, for indefinite periods of time, is the next closest thing.”

“I think, and we are assembling this airplane as we are flying it, but we are going to try to keep the momentum very tightly focused on those two points,” he added. “Even with all this goodwill, even with all this money, fixing this is going to take a long time. It should never have happened in the first place and we need to ensure that it never happens again.”

Although they both used to work at Facebook, Charlotte Willner now works at Pinterest and Dave Willner is now at Airbnb. On the new podcast, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky also joined Swisher in studio to talk about how he and other tech leaders are weighing their political responsibilities in the Trump era.

“I think we’re realizing, all of us tech founders and CEOs, that we probably have a greater responsibility than we used to think we had,” Cheksy said. “When I came to Silicon Valley in 2007, people said my responsibility was to build a great company, to grow and to get return for investors. They didn’t say, ‘You have to speak out on social issues and try to make society better.’”

His first overtly political move was to offer free housing to people displaced by the Muslim travel ban in 2017; later that year, Airbnb kicked out users who were renting its hosts’ homes to hold white supremacist afterparties for the rally in Charlottesville, Va. Although he was initially nervous about how those decisions might affect Airbnb’s business, Chesky said the “right people” have doubled down in response.

He praised his employees who have spoken out on issues like the immigration crisis and Black Lives Matter, and said Dave Willner’s work on the fundraiser proves that they can do more than just make noise.

“Airbnb can take zero credit for his generosity,” Chesky said. “I do want to take credit for hiring people like that. And I do think that we attract a lot of great people, and Dave is one of those people.”

If you like this show, you should also sample our other podcasts:

  • Recode Media with Peter Kafka features no-nonsense conversations with the smartest and most interesting people in the media world, with new episodes every Thursday. Use these links to subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.
  • On Too Embarrassed to Ask, also hosted by Kara Swisher, we answer the tech questions sent in by our readers and listeners. You can hear new episodes every Friday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.

If you like what we’re doing, please write a review on Apple Podcasts — and if you don’t, just tweet-strafe Kara.

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