When Rosalie Lochner’s phone rang, late one night in mid-June, a mother in Arizona was desperately preparing to travel across the country to be reunited with her three children. It was Lochner’s sister, Anna Moody, who called to tell her about Yeni González, a Guatemalan woman who had been detained after entering the United States from Mexico. Early one morning, while González was still in criminal custody, federal agents had transported her children to Manhattan. Now that González had been bonded out of custody, a team of volunteers was mobilizing to drive her, in segments, to New York. It was a grassroots network that some began referring to as a modern-day underground railroad. González would soon be nearing Michigan, and Moody, a high-profile lawyer in Washington, D.C., thought her sister might be able to help. Lochner jumped at the opportunity. “Honestly, I didn’t know whether anything was going to come of it,” she says. “But once I started, I couldn’t stop.”
Lochner had previously taught philosophy at Loyola Marymount University — her dissertation focused on feminist political equality. But since moving to Grosse Pointe Park in 2017, she had been caring for her two sons, 4-year-old Henry and 2-year old Alex, full-time, and struggling to reconcile her new life with the same sense of social responsibility she’d always believed in. Amid a national crisis that devastated parents and children, she found new purpose and promptly emerged among the state’s foremost humanitarian activists.
“I can’t look at my kids and know that my government is responsible for [separating families], and not be actively trying to do something.”
— Rosalie Lochner
The family separation crisis quickly became a national emergency. Families were occasionally separated under previous presidential administrations, but when Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced, in April, that every adult caught crossing the southwest border illegally would be criminally prosecuted — including asylum seekers — the separations became routine. As thousands of immigrant parents awaited court proceedings, many of their children were being shipped across the country to government-contracted foster homes and detention centers resulting in immediate chaos. Reports quickly emerged on mandated policies of “no physical contact” with the children, toddlers crying themselves to sleep, and workers forcibly administering psychiatric drugs to placate unsettled children.
Lochner was horrified. As an academic, she was able to map the new immigration policies onto historically recurring patterns of systematic dehumanization. As a patriot, she felt partly responsible. “If this is my country, then I have an obligation to it, and that obligation means holding it to the highest standard.” But most importantly, she was a mother. And in the faces of the terrified children that appeared all over the television news, she saw her own children. “I can’t look at my kids, and know that my government is responsible for that, and not be actively trying to do something.”
After reaching out to organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union and Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, she learned that, while more than 50 separated kids had ended up in Michigan, there was no group dedicated specifically to helping those families reunite, and to securing housing or other needs once they did. “A lot of people were protesting, a lot of people were angry, but not a lot was being set up for these families.”
With limited Spanish language skills and no previous experience coordinating volunteer campaigns, Lochner began working 10-hour days around her parental duties. She used her kitchen table as a control center to call her neighbors, religious leaders, lawyers, and anyone else who might be able to help. Within a couple weeks, under the name Michigan Support Circle, she was managing a small team of devoted activists — many of them also stay-at-home moms — and an extended network of some 400 volunteers. The organization eventually became involved with more than a half-dozen families, most of whom remained in Michigan. Lochner and others, diving headfirst into tremendously complicated new terrain, quickly established close relationships. “For me, she’s been an angel,” Karina, reunited with her daughter through Michigan Support Circle, says of Lochner. “She arrived just in time.” (Karina’s last name has been omitted to protect her privacy.)
The volunteers helped navigate legal cases and found housing for the families. They raised money for parents barred from working, and tended to families’ medical, food, clothing, translation, and transportation needs. The group’s innovative frequent flier mile campaign parlayed donated miles into cross-country flights. Put together, it was an astonishing organizational effort, all led by a former philosophy professor. “She’s efficient, she’s appreciative, she’s very thorough, and she doesn’t miss a beat,” Gina Katz, a Michigan Support Circle volunteer, says of Lochner. “I think she definitely found a calling.”
There were struggles, of course, and unforeseen challenges. The group’s public profile triggered a deluge of email threats from angry immigration hardliners. And Lochner’s husband Erich, a marketing executive, was incredibly supportive, but the couple reckoned with how sustainable Lochner’s effort was. Her new role felt all-consuming. She told her group that she needed to step back only to dig in harder. She slept little, and leaned on a family friend for babysitting. Her kids, she says, “were really tolerant. Let’s put it that way.” But she knew that what she was doing was combating unnecessary suffering. When her precocious 4-year-old asked why his mom was always on the phone, she could proudly explain the concept of civic responsibility, and that she was working to help others who need it. “Some people made a mistake,” she told her son. “It’s our job as citizens, and as members of the community, to help these families so that we can make this better.”
By summer, the group found its rhythm. Caving to political backlash, President Trump signed an executive order in late June effectively halting the separation policy. While hundreds of parents and children still remained apart, the initial urgency had waned. After helping families reunite, the group had moved on to helping them establish better lives: volunteers enrolled kids in area schools, and collaborated with community organizations for long-term support. Most remarkably for Lochner, though, was that somehow, every request the group put out had been answered. Lochner, though devastated at her country’s actions, had discovered new faith in its citizens. “Almost everybody is a lot better than we think, on all sides,” she says. “When you make a human call, people hear that.”