SALT LAKE CITY — A crowdfunding campaign to subsidize President Donald Trump's proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall raised more than $20 million in donations. But now all that money will be refunded — unless the donors want to give again.
"We The People Will Build the Wall," as the fundraiser was called, began last month on the crowdfunding platform GoFundMe. It went viral as Trump’s effort to get Congress to fund the wall to the tune of $5.6 billion has prompted a political standoff resulting in the longest government shutdown in United States history — currently on its 26th day.
Last week, Trump addressed the nation in a primetime television address in an attempt to persuade Americans that a “humanitarian and security crisis” at the border must be addressed before the shutdown ends. Whether or not a border crisis actually exists has been debated by politicians and pundits.
Brian Kolfage, a triple amputee Air Force veteran, started the GoFundMe campaign in hopes of providing $1 billion to pay for Trump’s wall, The New York Times reported. Kolfage said on his campaign page that he “was tired of watching the U.S. government’s inability to secure our southern border," CNN reported.
More than 325,000 donors contributed to the campaign, raising more than $20 million. But the fundraiser, GoFundMe told CNN, was “designed to be all or nothing.”
“When the campaign was created, the campaign organizer specifically stated on the campaign page, ‘If we don’t reach out goal or come significantly close we will refund every single penny,'” Bobby Whitmore, a spokesman for GoFundMe, told CNN. “He also stated on the campaign page, ‘100 percent of your donations will go to the Trump Wall. If for ANY reason we don’t reach our goal we will refund your donation.' That did not happen. This means all donors will receive a refund.”
In a note posted on the campaign’s webpage on Friday, Kolfage said the federal government would not be able to accept donations “anytime soon,” according to The New York Times.
Kolfage told The New York Times that donating to the government would have required Congress’ approval, and he said a Democratic-controlled Congress would not give it to him.
In its place, Kolfage formed a Florida nonprofit organization called “We Build the Wall, Inc.” that will use donations to fund a private effort to build portions of the wall where private landowners permit construction.
Kolfage is asking donors to redirect their donations to the nonprofit. But he will honor the refund immediately or will automatically return the money to donors in 90 days if donors don’t choose to transfer their donations to the new platform, The New York Times reported.
Kolfage told The New York Times he didn’t know how many donors would want to transfer their donations to the nonprofit. But on his updated GoFundMe page, Kolfage wrote “when Americans see us completing real miles of beautiful wall, we know that we will raise the many billions we need to finally secure the entire border.”
Typically, GoFundMe campaigns can still collect money even if they don’t reach their goal, according to The New York Times.
The Department of Homeland Security and the Trump administration did not respond to requests for comment Friday on the possibility of a privately funded effort to build the wall, according to The New York Times.
What people are saying about the campaign
Some immigration advocacy groups have criticized the GoFundMe campaign as a “xenophobic result of fearmongering about immigrants,” The New York Times stated. Some started competing GoFundMe fundraisers to drum up donations for the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, or “Raices,” a Texas nonprofit.
“The wall remains the wrong direction for us as a country, something that will not help advance any of our national interests and that would only serve to further harm vulnerable refugees and immigrants seeking protection in our country," Jonathan Ryan, president and chief executive of Raices, told The New York Times.
Kolfage himself has also come under scrutiny. A BuzzFeed News investigation published on Jan. 10 cast suspicion upon some of Kolfage’s past uses of funds generated through GoFundMe campaigns:
“(Kolfage) used GoFundMe to collect $16,246 for a veteran mentorship program. The campaign closed in February 2015, and the funds went directly to Kolfage. …But representatives for all three medical centers told BuzzFeed News that they have no record of any peer-mentoring programs or Kolfage working with patients at their centers,” the news outlet stated.
NBC News also published an exposé of Kolfage’s past internet activity, which included running a website that promoted debunked conspiracy theories.
Kolfage posted a video response to media reports about the refund Monday.
"Rumors of our demise have been greatly exaggerated," Kolfage said in a statement. "Our team is thrilled with the positive response of our donors despite media attempts to confuse the situation. Before announcing the new plan, I worked closely with GoFundMe to make sure that we offered original donors a fair process to approve of the new plan that honors We Build the Wall Inc.'s spirit of disclosure, full transparency, and overall business ethics."
Are there other ways for Trump to fund the wall without Congress' approval?
The White House has floated options for freeing up funding for the wall without needing Congress' signature — including declaring a national emergency.
"We can call a national emergency and build it very quickly," Trump said Jan. 4.
But it’s unclear if doing so would actually allow the president to free up the requisite cash. For example, under the Immigration and Nationality Act, the president has the authority to declare an “immigration emergency,” and an Immigration Emergency Fund exists for this purpose.
But the law only approves $20 million for the fund on an annual basis, USA Today reported. That’s far less than the $5.6 billion Trump is asking for the wall.
It’s also likely that such an “aggressive” move would be face legal challenges, the New York Times reported.
[Deseret News analysis: Can Trump declare a national emergency?]
In an op-ed published Monday, Julian Zelizer of Princeton University and Michael Zeldin, a CNN legal analyst, advocated for what they call a “border wall solution Trump hasn’t thought of.”
“If ... a national emergency really exists, as our president insists, then he should take his case directly to the American people and look for other ways to pay for a wall — ways that do not require the use of pre-existing taxpayer dollars,” they wrote.
They proposed that the president issues “wall bonds,” or government-issued debt securities, to fund the wall, an idea borrowed from the first half of the 20th century, when President Woodrow Wilson and President Franklin Roosevelt rallied the public to pay for national emergency programs by issuing bonds and imposing higher taxes.39 comments on this story
“After all, the best measure of support for a government program is whether the public is willing to pay for the program,” they wrote. “Floating the idea of wall bonds would allow the president to see how much support truly exists to build a border wall paid for by Americans. History has shown that when the public believes a national emergency exists, they are willing to step up to the plate.”
A 2018 survey by the Pew Research Center found that a 56 percent majority opposes substantially expanding the wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.