For the past several months, the Niskanen Center has been tirelessly working to allow Americans to sponsor refugees by covering the government’s costs of vetting and integrating them. This led us to an interesting question: Is it legal for Americans to voluntarily fund the federal government agencies that they want to support?
Although forking over heaps of money is still fresh in the minds of many taxpayers, the few “patriots” wanting to give more are in luck—you can, in fact, donate right into America’s bank account. The first place we looked was the U.S. Treasury. In 1843, Treasury Secretary John Spencer thoughtfully created an account so that “individuals wishing to express their patriotism to the United States” could do so monetarily.
Strangely, donations to this account actually happen. The U.S. Treasury says Americans gave about $47 million dollars to “reduce the debt” since 1996, including almost $4 million last year. Tax law even makes these donations tax deductible if they are made for a “public purpose.” So, you can donate to the government…in order to pay less to the government later.
This, we realized, didn’t really help the refugee plan. While it establishes that Americans can legally give to the government, all the money generously sent to the account is considered an unconditional gift to reduce the public debt—meaning that the patriotic givers cannot tell the government where to spend the money, nor can the Treasury lawfully send it somewhere else. It just ends up going toward general expenses.
The question remained: Can specific agencies accept our money and use it for a specific purpose? It depends. There’s no categorical answer to the question, but we were able to find answers for the three agencies of specific interest.
The statutes for the Department of State (DoS) and Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), which control most refugee integration in the United States, are virtually identical. They are “authorized to accept on behalf of the United States gifts made unconditionally by will or otherwise for the benefit of the Service or for the carrying out of any of its functions.” The statute also allows for conditional gifts, meaning that donors can generally specify how the gift is used.
Now we were getting somewhere. Americans can give already to these agencies, and if both DoS and DHHS provided a requisite fund, donors could give to the funds knowing that their money would assist refugee resettlement efforts. Great!
Then we hit a potential snag. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which performs all interviews of refugees, generally cannot accept gifts except those “used for the benefit, or in connection with, the establishment, operation, or maintenance, […] of [an] institution or organization under the jurisdiction of the Secretary.” Whether refugee vetting falls under this purview is questionable.
But here’s the important thing about USCIS: all of its funding comes from privately paid fees on applications and petitions for visas. The United States doesn’t make refugees pay fees for obvious reasons, so the funds come from fees on applications for other programs.
This creates a viable workaround to the agency’s limited gift authority. It can create a new private sponsorship program and charge a fee to sponsoring applications—the same way it charges a fee to sponsor a spousal visa. The fee would cover the cost of both the sponsor’s application and the cost of the refugee’s interview overseas. It wouldn’t be a gift. It’d be a fee for service, and so it’s legal.
There you have it. Americans can, in fact, legally fund private refugee resettlement. While most Americans are loathe to donate to the government, its monopoly on refugee resettlement would spur many philanthropists to contribute, if only the government guaranteed that it would save more refugees fleeing violence and persecution abroad.