GoFundMe Campaign to Build Border Wall Raises Millions, Riles Migrant Advocates

Contractors expanded the fence at the United States-Mexico border in San Diego, Calif., this month.CreditCreditMauricio Lima for The New York Times

Crowdfunding donations have paid for medical and legal bills, wildfire losses and college tuition. Now, a GoFundMe campaign aims to finance one the most hotly debated issues in American politics: President Trump’s long-promised border wall.

The campaign, called “We The People Will Fund The Wall” and launched this week by a disabled Florida veteran, had raised more than $13 million from more than 213,000 people by Friday afternoon. The goal? $1 billion.

“Americans are putting their money where their mouth is,” the campaign’s founder, Brian Kolfage, said in an interview Friday. “They’re willing to put money down to show politicians this is what they want.”

Mr. Kolfage — a triple amputee who served in Iraq and who ran a right-wing website that was eventually removed by Facebook — is hoping to raise even greater sums to cover construction of a barrier between the United States and Mexico. He suggested on the GoFundMe page that if the 63 million people who voted for Mr. Trump were to each donate $80, they would raise more than $5 billion, the amount Mr. Trump is seeking for the wall.

“As a veteran who has given so much, 3 limbs, I feel deeply invested to this nation to ensure future generations have everything we have today,” Mr. Kolfage, 37, wrote in the fund-raiser description. “Too many Americans have been murdered by illegal aliens and too many illegals are taking advantage of the United States taxpayers with no means of ever contributing to our society.”

Mr. Kolfage, a Purple Heart recipient who lives in Miramar Beach, Fla., wrote on the GoFundMe page that he began the drive out of frustration that Mr. Trump’s signature campaign promise remained unfulfilled. “It’s time we uphold our laws, and get this wall BUILT!,” he wrote. “It’s up to Americans to help out and pitch in to get this project rolling.”

In a phone interview, Mr. Kolfage said the public outpouring of donations only underscored the exasperation felt by those who supported the wall project. “Americans are frustrated with the way things are going and politicians holding us all hostage,” he said.

The campaign went viral as Mr. Trump appeared to back down from his threat to shut down the government unless Congress allocated $5 billion for the wall, a capitulation that outraged his most ardent supporters and right-wing media pundits alike. The president later said on Twitter that Mexico would indirectly pay for the wall through a new North American free trade deal. But on Thursday, Mr. Trump told House Republican leaders he would not sign a stopgap spending bill to avert a shutdown if it did not include border-wall funding. The House on Thursday evening passed stopgap spending legislation with an additional $5.7 billion for wall construction, but it is expected to fail in the Senate, where Democratic votes are needed to top the 60-vote threshold.

[Read: A Possible Government Shutdown? Here’s Where Things Stand.]

Like Mr. Trump, Mr. Kolfage has focused his wrath on congressional Democrats, whom he blames for refusing to fund the project. “They’d rather see President Trump fail, than see America succeed,” he wrote on the fund-raiser page.

Immigration advocacy groups condemned the GoFundMe campaign, calling it a misguided venture fueled by xenophobia.

Brian Kolfage, 37, an Air Force veteran, with his wife, Ashley, in 2012. Mr. Kolfage has begun a GoFundMe campaign to help pay for President Trump’s long-promised border wall.CreditPat Shannahan/The Arizona Republic, via Associated Press

“The fund-raiser is a direct consequence of the president’s yearslong fearmongering about immigrants,” said Jonathan Ryan, executive director of the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, a Texas nonprofit known as Raices. This summer, a Facebook fund-raising campaign for the group raked in more than $20 million from more than 525,000 people, the largest single fund-raiser in the social media platform’s history.

Dismayed by Mr. Kolfage’s efforts, a number of people started online campaigns for Raices in recent days, including one created Thursday that had raised nearly $100,000 by late Friday afternoon. “We’re not scared of those who would support President Trump’s racist border wall. We know it will go down as a historical blunder and, if built, a scar across our country,” Mr. Ryan said in an email.

Mr. Kolfage dismissed the criticism, saying he simply opposes illegal immigration. “Just go through the front door,” he said. “Bring all these migrants in, verify them, vet them. I’m all for it.”

Mr. Kolfage assured donors that “100% of your donations will go to the Trump Wall,” and that his team had contacted the Trump administration about securing the funds. He also wrote that he was working with a law firm to draft a contract that would “bind the government to using the funds for the border wall itself, nothing else.”

To allay any doubts, Mr. Kolfage’s campaign page cited the 2012 Washington Monument restoration project, which repaired earthquake damage to the 555-foot obelisk with $7.5 million allocated by the government and a matching donation made by a billionaire to the Trust for the National Mall, a nonprofit public-private partnership with the National Park Service. If the crowdfunding project fails to reach its goal, Mr. Kolfage promised to refund every donation. “This won’t be easy, but it’s our duty as citizens,” he wrote.

But it is not that simple. The Department of Homeland Security would not be able to accept the donations without congressional approval.

“Congress would still have to enact a statute permitting this,” said David Bier, a policy analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute. “But current law prohibits the administration from taking this money and spending it, and it also violates the law to accept donations that bind the hands of the administration.”

Mr. Kolfage said in the interview that he had spoken to someone in the White House, but declined to identify the person. “I think it’s gone all the way up to President Trump,” he said. He added that Representative Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio, had called him to say that the GoFundMe campaign had impacted Thursday’s vote.

Since Mr. Kolfage started his campaign, numerous copycats have started their own wall crowdfunding efforts. Some have raised a few thousand dollars, but most remain at $0. It is not the first time conservatives have turned to the internet for help in paying for a physical barrier. In 2011, Arizona lawmakers started an online fund for a border fence, which was never built.

The campaign’s viral success may stem in part from Mr. Kolfage’s national profile as a conservative political activist who ran a political website that was removed by Facebook in October, an action that drew the attention of Fox News.

According to his website, which describes him as “the most severely wounded US Airman to survive his wounds,” Mr. Kolfage was on his second deployment to Iraq in September 2004, when a 107mm enemy rocket shell exploded three feet away from him. One of his lungs collapsed and three of his limbs were mangled, but medics saved his life. Despite amputations of both legs and his right hand, Mr. Kolfage completed rehabilitation at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington in just 11 months, and he later became a motivational speaker.

In October, Facebook removed hundreds of political pages for “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” including Mr. Kolfage’s Right Wing News, he told Fox News that month. He denied claims made by NBC News on Thursday that he ran a series of affiliate websites that promoted false political conspiracy theories and racist content. In the wake of the purge, Mr. Kolfage launched a website that accuses Facebook of censoring conservative views, but his GoFundMe page makes no mention of these websites.

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