Nonprofit Uses Donated Frequent Flyer Miles to Reunite Families

August 16, 2018; New York Times

When Beth Wilensky tweeted that she and her husband had donated frequent flyer miles to reunite a refugee family separated at the US-Mexico border, the post immediately went viral. People all across the nation, it appears, were looking for some way to help in the wake of the disastrous family separation policy that removed nearly 3,000 children from parents seeking asylum in the United States.

Wilensky, a law professor at the University of Michigan, couldn’t directly respond to the thousands of people who reached out to help, so she connected those interested in donating their miles to Miles4Migrants, a two-year-old nonprofit that donates miles to refugees, asylum seekers, and their immediate family members so that they can travel to countries that have offered them legal entry.

In the week following Wilensky’s tweet, Miles4Migrants received donations of 28 million miles, even though the majority of the nearly 3,000 children taken from their parents have been reunited with parents or family members or released from government custody. This outpouring of support suggests that Americans have not left this tragedy behind and remain concerned about the more than 500 children who remain separated from their parents in US government custody. Many of the parents of these children have left the country, either voluntarily or through deportation.

Miles4Migrants has primarily been an international aid organization, helping families escape war-torn regions of the world with flights from places like Addis Ababa to safe harbors such as Edinburgh. The organization has stayed out of US politics.

“We’re about reunited families,” founding member Andy Freedman told the New York Times. “The way we do that is fairly simple. We help them with a flight.”

With the new donations, the group is looking at how they can help reunite families in the United States. According to the New York Times,

So far, Miles4Migrants has booked two flights for migrants within the United States. Mr. Stanton [one of the founders of the group] said that while the logistics and the bureaucracy are daunting, they hope to do more and are looking for partner organizations, including airlines, to help them do it, as well as cash to cover the fees and taxes associated with flights.

Beth Wilensky was surprised her tweet created such a groundswell of support. But reflecting on the experience with reporter Jacey Fortin, she said, “I think a lot of people out there, like my husband and I, have watched all of this unfold—this family separation policy—with a sense of absolute horror….I think a lot of people felt like we did, which is, ‘Oh my gosh, here’s something real and concrete that might help to fix this problem, even if it’s just for one family at a time.’”—Karen Kahn