For Maria Woltjen, it was a bit surreal looking at the computer in her Hyde Park office Wednesday and seeing a reminder in her calendar for a phone call with George and Amal.
Actor George Clooney and his wife, Amal Clooney, a human rights attorney and activist, were calling to chat about a $100,000 donation from their Clooney Justice Foundation to the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights.
Woltjen runs the Young Center — the only organization in the country the U.S. government taps to act as advocates for children being separated at the border from their parents as they try to enter the country.
The group is independent, but is headquartered on the University of Chicago campus and works with the university’s law school.
“George and Amal wanted to know what we would use the money for,” Woltjen said. “I said we’ll use the funds to increase our capacity to do our work.”
There’s currently a wait list of children who need advocates. And the donation will go most of the way towards covering the salary, benefits and overhead of hiring an additional attorney to act as an advocate.
During the phone call Wednesday afternoon, which lasted more than 10 minutes, Amal did most of the talking.
“She was the one who asked most of the questions, but George thanked us over and over for the work that we’re doing,” Woltjen said. “He talked about what he had read in the press about what’s happening and seeing the photographs of the little kids being taken away.”
“It was a really easy, pleasant conversation. It was of course amazing to hear George Clooney’s voice on the other end of a telephone. I’m a huge fan of his acting and also a huge fan of Amal, given all the work she does around the world.”
Without being able to get into specifics, Woltjen said that a significant number of her organization’s 750 current cases deal directly with the crisis over the last nine months at the border with Mexico. Many of the children they serve are under the age of 12.
The Young Center employs 28 attorneys spread across eight offices around the country. They act as go-betweens for immigrant children, their parents and the various government agencies involved with their immigration cases.
The advocates are not the children’s attorneys. Their job is to offer guidance concerning children’s best interests to immigration judges, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, deportation officers and facilities housing both parents and children in order to figure out the best way to re-unite families.
The Young Center traditionally advocated for children who’ve shown up to the border as unaccompanied minors. Advocating for kids under President Donald Trump’s new “zero tolerance” policy has left advocates navigating unchartered territory.
“It is extremely complicated, nuanced and time consuming and there’s not a protocol for it,” said Kelly Albinak Kribs, an attorney with the Young Center.
“I have a three-year old and one-year old at home,” Kribs said. “When I’m at work, I feel like I have my armor on, but when I’m at home with my old children and holding my own baby and playing with my own toddler, that’s when I’m thinking about these parents that don’t have that extreme privilege, and that is the hardest time for me.”
The government funded about half of the Young Center’s approximately $4 million budget this year.
Woltjen said the Clooney clan promoting their work means a lot.
“It will mean more donations for us. I just took a look, donations are coming in over the transom,” she said.
On another note, it’s not exactly clear how Trump’s executive order halting the separation of families, which was announced Wednesday, will affect their work.
“We haven’t seen it yet, so we can’t say,” Woltjen said.