Why can’t Border agents take donations?

Last blog, Mark handled a tough topic with the academic aplomb I admire him for. But I don’t want him to shoulder all the weight of the heavy topics. There’s a lot going on right now that needs to be talked about and better understood. This week, I’ve been inundated with questions from friends, family, and internet acquaintances about the issues at our southern border today, particularly in the area of donations. ‘Why aren’t they taking donations?’ people are asking.

This is actually part of the law known as The Antideficiency Act, and it prohibits federal agencies from obligations or expending federal funds in advance or in excess of their federal appropriation, and from accepting voluntary services. The earliest version of the act was passed in 1870 after the Civil War, to end the executive branch’s long history of creating coercive deficiencies. Before this legislation was enacted, many agencies, particularly the military, would intentionally run out of money, forcing Congress to provide additional funds to avoid breaching contracts. Some went as far as to spend their entire budget in the first few months of the fiscal year, funding the rest of the year after the fact with additional appropriations from Congress. Not the greatest way to run a country.

Because of this law now, the government can’t spend any money or accept any donations other than what Congress has already allocated to it. This is meant to keep agencies honest, and not take money from private groups with specific agendas, which could end up working as blackmail. The Act is meant to keep corruption out of the federal government. A link to the nitty-gritty of the law can be found here: https://www.gao.gov/legal/appropriations-law-decisions/resources

We can talk about why there is a surge of asylum seekers in another post, but the attention on children not having what an average person would consider to be basic hygiene has brought the issue of how these centers are being funded and managed. https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/adolfoflores/migrant-children-border-patrol-detention-soap The federal government is currently paying $775 per child a night at these “Unaccompanied Child Detention Centers”. https://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/immigration-border-crisis/trump-admin-s-tent-cities-cost-more-keeping-migrant-kids-n884871 The reason for the high cost, an official told NBC News, is that the sudden need to bring in security, air conditioning, medical workers, etc., is much higher than the cost for structures that are already permanently staffed.

Another issue is that the system of detention facilities managed by the Border Patrol was never designed to house children, and the federal funding allocated yearly to the Border Patrol was never expected to cover the costs of housing children for more than a couple of hours. One can have a discussion about why many of these children have been separated from their families while requesting asylum, I suppose, but it’s difficult to find a reasonable argument as to why the Border Patrol are being tasked with housing them. It is simply not a function they are equipped to do. It’s a bit like asking car factory to start making diapers overnight.

Charity and the collection of donations in times of crisis is a big part of the American identity. We are all usually grateful when we have the ability to help. Patrick Rooney wrote an article synthesizing data on how much Americans give during emergencies, and who. You can read his work here: http://theconversation.com/american-generosity-after-disasters-4-questions-answered-83277, but he doesn’t really explain why we give.

Recently, the Justice Department was asked to explain why detainees were not regularly being given such hygiene products as soap and toothbrushes, when the detainees have been stripped of most items as they are processed. the lawyer for the government made a poor showing, trying to explain that the children, especially, weren’t expected to stay in the facilities for more than a couple of days, so not having the chance to bathe wasn’t that big a deal. And it wouldn’t be, if the children were only staying a couple of days. But it has been documented that many children have been in these centers for weeks, as some as long as a month without adequate clothes, soap or washing facilities, and without beds. https://www.npr.org/2019/06/27/736781192/scenes-of-tearful-flu-stricken-and-underfed-migrant-kids-emerge-in-new-accounts

Funding bills have passed both the House and the Senate as of today, and the bills will now go to through the process of Reconciliation before being sent to the President’s desk. But many in the House and the Senate are concerned that neither bill has protections to keep the money meant for humanitarian aid from being diverted to enforcement. https://www.cnn.com/2019/06/27/politics/border-funding-migrant-crisis-nancy-pelosi-house-senate-bills/index.html So, the next few weeks will show us what type of government we truly have.

And yes, it’s even more complex than what you’ve just read, if we consider that different centers are operated by contractors to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which then function under a different set of rules, depending if they are a registered non-profit or a for-profit organization.

But I think a reconsideration of the Antideficiency Act may be important. When we as Americans see that there is a dire need, we do not want to be told by our government that we can’t help. That’s never going to be a good answer.

Please feel free to leave comments, particularly any clarifying information, as this story is still fluid.

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Drs. Dana Pertermann & Mark Neels

Friends, colleagues, and sparing partners, Drs. Dana L. Pertermann and Mark A. Neels collaborate on research in military history, politics, and culture. They are currently both college professors in Wyoming. They blog weekly about the past, the present, and the future of the U.S. and the world.

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