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Why Are the Charities Enabling Illegal Immigration Still Tax-Exempt?

A 501(c)(3) designation isn’t a license to break the law.

(Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

As the extent of America’s illegal immigration problem under President Biden has become clearer, so has the role played by many of the country’s best-known nonprofits, including Catholic Charities, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, the Red Cross, and United Way. While ostensibly funded to help overwhelmed personnel at Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) process the influx of self-declared asylum seekers, these and scores of lesser-known charities have instead worked to increase the number of illegal border-crossers dramatically.

We now know, for example, that as far back as 2019 the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was using the messaging service WhatsApp to update Central American migrants on the safest routes through Mexico to the U.S., the best places to obtain food and water, and how to contact their families. The ICRC was also identifying shelters and help centers along the way to the southern border.


More recently, it has been revealed that few of the charities funded to help legally screened migrants reach their desired destinations in the U.S. ever bother to determine whether the people they transport have actually been processed. “Let’s face it,” said former Department of Homeland Security advisor Charles Marino, “they [the nonprofits] help whoever they encounter. And that includes those that are gotaways, where there are no records of them with CBP [Customs and Border Protection] at all.”

By March 2023, even the Department of Homeland Security had to admit that many of its nonprofit subcontractors were giving just as much assistance to illegal immigrants as they were to those who had been vetted at the border. Two months later, House Committee on Oversight and Accountability Chairman James Comer of Kentucky, Subcommittee on National Security, the Border, and Foreign Affairs Chairman Glenn Grothman of Wisconsin, and Rep. Jake LaTurner of Kansas jointly condemned the degree to which taxpayer funded charities had become responsible for so many “overwhelmed American communities, from Yuma and El Paso to Martha’s Vineyard and New York City.”

To be clear, there is no problem with any nonprofit expressing sympathy for foreign nationals who want to come to the U.S. or for policies which would help them realize their desire. Under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, which clarifies what tax-exempt organizations are legally permitted to do, educating the public on the pros and cons of almost any policy is considered a legitimate activity, no matter which side of the argument the nonprofit itself comes down on. 

Nor, interestingly, does the U.S. tax code prevent a nonprofit from violating the laws of another nation. It has long been recognized that a charity which seeks, say, to care for children in a war-torn or impoverished country might have to bribe certain officials in order to fulfill its mission. 

At the same time, there is no special exemption which allows an employee of an American tax-exempt organization willfully to ignore his own country’s laws, as increasing numbers have been doing since Biden’s election. This is true no matter how well-intentioned that nonprofit staffer might imagine himself to be. Or even if, as appears to be the case, that staffer has been collaborating with other nonprofit workers who share the same progressive justification for their illicit behavior—namely, that an open border compensates foreigners whose ancestors were once oppressed by American colonialism. 


There is also nothing in the tax code which grants charities the right to perform what they believe to be a humanitarian service, if by doing so they inflict serious pain or loss on third parties who have not agreed to the sacrifice. Much has already been written about the drug smuggling, human trafficking, and crime which accompany the current migrant influx, but this is only part of the unwanted suffering American citizens are being forced to endure.

According to a January 11 report to the Immigration Integrity, Security, and Enforcement Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee, the net cost of assimilating the average illegal immigrant—welfare, education, and medical care minus whatever he or she may ultimately give back in taxes—is $68,390. Multiply that number by just the 1.7 million gotaways known to have entered the country during Biden’s presidency, plus the 2.7 million “inadmissible aliens” who have nevertheless been released over the same period, and the fiscal burden on U.S. taxpayers is over $300 billion. Adjust further for ICE’s estimate of all gotaways, and the country’s involuntarily assumed liability (at a time when both Social Security and Medicare desperately need more funding) jumps to half a trillion.

If the U.S. government cannot bring itself to stop charities from subverting immigration law, it should at least provide citizens with a clear enough picture of what is really happening at the border to make better informed decisions about their personal giving. As Mike Howell, director of the Heritage Foundation’s Oversight Project, has observed, “A lot of people who donate to these organizations don’t full well know what their money's going towards.” Many “do a lot of good in certain places,” he adds, “but this is a big bad.”

And yet the Biden administration has gone out of its way to keep such information as hidden from the public as possible. According to Howell, the billions which the charities facilitating illegal immigration get from Washington are filtered through so many federal agencies that an accurate accounting of what each does and how much it spends is almost impossible. Indeed, says Marino, it’s difficult to know even how many are operating along the southwest border.

The role of nonprofits in fostering illegal immigration is further obscured by channeling their funding through various United Nations agencies under the guise of “foreign aid.” The latest of these UN-camouflaged schemes, as reported by Center for Immigration Studies, aims to “dole out $1.6 billion in cash, debit cards, food, clothing, medical treatment, shelter, and [transportation]” to millions of U.S.-bound immigrants in 2024 alone. 

It is only because of the IRS requirement that all tax-exempt groups make public their annual income statements that we have any idea of the extent to which many have become a part of what the Heritage Foundation’s Lora Ries has dubbed the “illegal immigration industrial complex.” A recent analysis by Forbes, for example, shows that Catholic Charities gets as much in government support as it does from private donations. In 2022, the $182.6 million in grants Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service received from the Department of Health and Human Services accounted for more than 80% of its total support. And in that same year, 40 percent of the income reported by Church World Services also came from government agencies.      

Ever since President Biden took office in 2021, as many as 6.2 million migrants have entered the U.S. illegally, a development which could never have happened without the coordinated assistance of thousands of America’s charity workers. And while it may not be possible to prosecute everyone “who deliberately and repeatedly broke the law to facilitate illegal immigration,” as Elon Musk has advocated, the nonprofits which clearly know what their employees are doing should at least be deprived of any special tax treatment going forward.