Franklin Graham's charity is mobilizing aid to the U.S.-Mexico border

Franklin Graham, president of Samaritan's Purse and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Photo courtesy of Samaritan’s Purse.

Franklin Graham, president of Samaritan's Purse and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Photo courtesy of Samaritan’s Purse.

Samaritan’s Purse, the poverty and crisis relief charity led by evangelical Christian leader Franklin Graham, announced on Tuesday that it is organizing meals and volunteers to respond to the US-Mexico border crisis, asking for donations online. 

The announcement comes 10 days after Christian singer Nichole Nordeman published an open letter to Graham in the Washington Post, calling on him to use his considerable resources and influence with President Donald Trump to improve border facility conditions. Though Graham often supports Trump, he surprised some of his followers by rebuking the president’s family separation policy at the border, calling it “disgraceful.” A week after Graham’s comment, Trump withdrew the policy.

Samaritan’s Purse is known for its Operation Christmas Child program, where volunteers from churches and schools collect shoes, toys, and hygiene items to send about 6 million shoe boxes a year to children living in poverty in 100 countries. The charity is inspired by the Biblical command to care for the poor and orphans. It has been criticized for delivering Christmas boxes containing books of Bible stories to Muslim children. The organization also runs programs like medical clinics and disaster relief.

Nordeman had tweeted at Graham last month about his charity’s lack of aid to children in U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) custody. She linked to an article describing new reports of crowding and unhealthy conditions at a CBP facility in Clint, Texas.

Photo of Nichole Nordeman, courtesy of her.

Photo of Nichole Nordeman, courtesy of her.

“Hey @Franklin_Graham, every Christmas you speak so convincingly about your heart for innocent children…the least of these...” Nordeman wrote, “which is why I knew you’d be floored to learn about a place that so desperately needs some of those shoeboxes. I’ll hand deliver.”

Neither Graham or Samaritan’s Purse responded to Nordeman directly, she says. A spokesperson for the organization acknowledged the singer’s call-out but didn’t say whether it factored into the decision to launch the initiative.

“That definitely brought it more into the public eye, but we had been monitoring the situation for several months and assessing what to do about it,” said Alyssa Benson, a media relations coordinator.

“Some of these people have been traveling for months and they have been through so much,” Graham said in a statement online. “Samaritan’s Purse has teams on the border right now, and we are working with churches, evangelical Christian partners, and local officials, to help alleviate the suffering of as many as we can.”

Benson said the operation is in its beginning stages. She could not provide details about the number of team members on the ground, but the group’s website states that chaplains from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association “are on the border praying with and encouraging those providing care.” 

Part of the challenge for those seeking practical solutions at the border is that the CBP facilities are not accepting donations like toothbrushes or soap, even when they lack enough of those items.

The website provides a link to learn about volunteering for the effort, which is operating in Del Rio and Laredo in Texas “and other communities.” Aid will include meals and access to phones for people released from CBP facilities, the organization said. Operations are planned for the Mexican side of the border, but no details were given.

“Beginning next week [July 15], Samaritan’s Purse volunteers from across the country will begin providing critical aid to migrants in addition to the teams of disaster response specialists already helping families in Jesus’ name,” Benson said in an email.

Nordeman thanked Samaritan’s Purse and Graham in separate Twitter posts a day after the announcement, and offered to join a volunteer team on the Mexican side of the border, “where asylum seekers are awaiting court dates in dire conditions and without basic essentials.”

Franklin Graham distributes solar lights and tarp for emergency shelter to families in Puerto Rico devastated by Hurricane Maria. Photo courtesy of Samaritan’s Purse.

Franklin Graham distributes solar lights and tarp for emergency shelter to families in Puerto Rico devastated by Hurricane Maria. Photo courtesy of Samaritan’s Purse.

Changing policies and shifting blame

The Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” policy denies asylum seekers entry to the U.S. to wait for their hearings. More than 6,000 have been received and given court dates but sent back into Mexico in the interim.

The government has argued that illegal border crossings put the country’s national security at risk. It has also tightened restrictions on visa applications and the asylum process, including closures and slowdowns at legal ports of entry.

Slowdowns have reportedly occurred because CBP officers shifted to detention centers to deal with increased numbers of people seeking asylum. Reports of severe overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, young children being given infants to care for and other dangerous conditions have stirred public outrage in recent weeks. 

About 133,000 migrants were apprehended or surrendered to border agents along the southwest border in May, The Texas Tribune reported. That was a 32 percent increase from April.

With so many arriving, blame for conditions in too-small facilities staffed by a limited number of border guards has become a hotly divisive issue. Trump has argued that the Obama administration built the fenced “cages” that his critics blame him for using to detain children. 

A group of inspectors and lawyers who visited facilities last month reported that the children in them were being denied basic hygiene items like toothpaste and soap. Attorney Elora Mukherjee was one of the group who was permitted to interview children. Those she spoke with reported crossing the border accompanied by adults and said they had relatives in the U.S, she said. Some had been detained for days and weeks in violation of a federal rule that requires their transfer to the Department of Health and Human Services after 72 hours, Mukherjee said.

Seven children have died in federal immigration custody in the past year. There were no recorded deaths of minors in custody in the previous 10 years.

Divided country, divided churches

Nordeman is asking Graham to not only supply emergency aid, but to use his platform and political influence to advocate for policies. “Please ask Trump to sign the emergency legislation just passed by Congress that provides immediate aid and critical resources for children arriving unaccompanied at the border,” Nordeman wrote.

Dr. Ben Karner, pastor at First Baptist Church Laredo near the Texas-Mexico border, is one of the people who replied to Nordeman’s initial tweet at Graham.

“Nicole [sic], how about you host a benefit concert at our church in Laredo to benefit the border crisis,” he wrote. “The funds could go to charities helping the children.”

It was a soft jab at Nordeman, Karner said. “What I’m saying is instead of passing the buck onto somebody else and saying, ‘You do something,’ how about you do something?”

Karner said he gets frustrated with politicians from both parties, who he feels are using the hot-button immigration issue as a political football. He said he ministers to people who have crossed the border, mainly providing food and clothing. His church can’t donate supplies to people in CBP custody because the agency doesn’t allow it. Officials have told him the policy is meant to prevent donated items from causing jealousy and violence among people in detention.

Karner’s concern, he said, is that people who enter the country and remain undocumented create a permanent underclass of vulnerable people throughout the country who can be exploited. The most frustration he sees in his community is a lack of feasible proposals for solutions; a wall isn’t a realistic fix, he said, nor are any of the proposed changes to immigration law that he has heard of.

The issue is destroying Christian unity, Karner said, with too many people pointing fingers rather than asking themselves what they can do. 

“It’s tearing at the fabric not only of our nation, but definitely of our churches,” he said. 

Nordeman said that in her open letter to Graham, she was careful to note the “good and important work around the world” of Samaritan’s Purse, and that she’s grateful for its presence at the border now.

“It's entirely possible that he made that decision without any nudge from me,” she said in an email. “Rather than devoting more time and space for anyone to point more fingers, place more blame or argue their own armchair expertise on these dire conditions, my energy is now fully devoted to finding opportunities to learn, listen and serve these children of God at our border, who have fled unthinkable circumstances and have faced unimaginable hardship.”

Nordeman said she is planning a brief trip to the border in September and will commit to a long-term plan of service afterward, but said a higher level of action is necessary.

“We need policy change,” she said. “We need to mobilize immediate, ongoing and long-term aid, and more than anything, we need followers of Jesus to set down their precious political leanings, left or right, and get busy loving his children."

Micah Danney is a Poynter-Koch reporting fellow for Religion Unplugged.