- People are donating their frequent flyer miles to help reunite separated immigrant families.
- Donations have spiked this week after a University of Michigan professor’s tweet went viral.
- According to Miles4Migrants, one of the organizations that helps facilitate the award flights, they’ve received more donated miles during the last week than they have over the past 23 months.
As the American Civil Liberties Union and the federal government work to reunite families separated at the US-Mexico border under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy, road warriors and business travelers are donating their frequent flyer miles to help cover the cost of reuniting children with their families.
Although more than 1,400 separated families have been reunited as of a court-imposed July 26 deadline, at least 711 children were unable to be reunited with their families, including at least 431 who have not yet been reunited because their parents may have already been deported, according to the federal government.
As nonprofit organizations attempt to help with the reunification process, families have had to pay as much as $2,000 or more in airfare in order to be reunited, which includes the cost of a round-trip ticket for a family escort, and a pricey one-way for each child.
“Flights can be incredibly expensive, especially last minute,” Seth Stanton, one of the directors of Miles4Migrants, told Business Insider. “Using miles helps us book these tickets to make reunifications possible.”
Although both organizations have been soliciting donations of frequent flyer miles since the current crisis began, they’ve seen an explosion of donations over the past several days, thanks to a viral tweet by University of Michigan Law School professor Beth H. Wilensky. Wilensky learned about the option to donate miles from a post in Michigan Support Circle’s Facebook group.
My husband travels a lot. Downside: he's gone a lot. Upside: frequent flyer miles. We just used some to fly a 3-yr-old and his dad, who had been separated at the border, from Michigan (where the son had been taken) to their extended family. DM me if you have miles to donate.
— Beth Wilensky (@bethwilensky) August 6, 2018
“At last count, we have commitments from about 175 volunteers,” Rosaline Lochner, Michigan Support Circle’s founder, said in a phone interview with Business Insider Tuesday afternoon. “Before Beth’s tweet started to spread, we had around 8-10.”
Wilensky’s husband, Jeff Wilensky, is the Vice President of global marketing for ProQuest, a multinational education technology company, and has amassed more than 600,000 Delta frequent flyer miles over the course of his work travel. He donated 75,000 of them through Michigan Support Circle, which helped reunite a three-year-old boy and his father, and fly them from Michigan – where the boy had been taken after being separated from his father at the border – to their extended family.
According to Andy Freedman, another director at Miles4Migrants, Wilensky’s tweet – which has been retweeted over 30,000 times and liked more than 138,000, as of press time – and several follow-up tweets have had an immediate impact.
Freedman said that once the tweet began spreading, miles started pouring in. “We’ve had more than 3.6 million miles donated by 112 separate people since the tweets,” he said.
According to Stanton, the average cost of an award flight booked with miles to reunite a family is 20,000 miles, meaning the 3.6 million miles can be used for around 180 flights.
“For reference, since we founded Miles4Migrants in September 2016, we’ve booked just over 150 flights,” Stanton said. “We’ve more-than-doubled our capacity to help in just a day.”
One of those donors was Tonia Ries, a marketing executive based in New York City. Ries learned about Miles4Migrants when someone she follows retweeted Wilensky’s tweet, leading her to donate 50,000 American Express points that she earned by using her card for business expenses.
“This was an easy way to make a difference,” Ries told Business Insider. “The recent family separation policy has made an issue I already cared about even more critical, so I was delighted to find an easy way to help. This is an ingenious way to let people use something that many can easily afford to share to help address an urgent need.”
Michigan Support Circle began as a local grassroots organization primarily focused on helping separated families who had been relocated to Michigan, while Miles4Migrants has typically had a more global view, working with partner organizations that identify cases where miles can be helpful – since the border crisis gained attention, separated immigrant families within the US have become a focus of the organization. Any flights that Miles4Migrants books are for cases that are legally-approved, in cases where any necessary visas and paperwork are already arranged.
Because most airlines and credit card loyalty programs add significant fees or place restrictions on transferring miles to another user, both Miles4Migrants and Michigan Support Circle rely on pledges from donors to use their miles when needed. When a partner humanitarian organization identifies a case, the groups contact a pledged donor with instructions and information, and that individual can book the tickets.
The use of frequent flyer miles to reunite families is not the first time that airlines have come into the story as the spotlight has grown on the forced separation of children from their parents at illegal border crossings.
In June, as outcry grew, American Airlines issued a statement asking the federal government not to use its services to transport children who had been separated from their families. United quickly followed suit, with Frontier and Southwest following.
While the airlines don’t have any direct involvement with individuals or organizations using miles to book flights for migrants, the process of helping a pledged donor book the tickets through their own account has a strong upside.
“Donors end up knowing exactly who they’re helping,” said Freedman. “It makes the experience less abstract, more real, and more tangible for donors.”