PHOENIX – A veteran who credits his decade in Arizona as showing him the importance of legal immigration is behind the viral campaign that has raised millions of dollars for the construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
The GoFundMe, “We The People Will Fund The Wall,” was started by veteran Brian Kolfage, 37. The triple-amputee was injured while serving in Iraq with the U.S. Air Force.
The fundraiser was inspired by a persistent dissatisfaction with the lack of action by politicians, Kolfage said.
“I was frustrated with our political leaders and what they’re doing – their broken promises and dragging things on,” said Kolfage on Sunday. “I thought having the GoFundMe would allow people to come together on the internet to show support for what they wanted. Raising this kind of money shows how important this is and that people want to support it.”
Donations quickly poured in, toppling Kolfage’s expectations by raising millions of dollars each day. The total surpassed $16 million from more than 271,000 people as of Monday.
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“I knew it would be big, but never that fast,” he said. “It just ignited.”
The fundraiser has a $1 billion goal – the largest in GoFundMe’s history. That would only cover one-fifth of the $5 billion price tag on President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall.
Kolfage’s Arizona ties
Kolfage, who grew up in Texas, lost both legs and his dominant right hand in a mortar attack in Iraq in 2004.
He underwent 16 surgeries in six months. He was forced to learn to write with his left hand and struggled to adjust to his prosthetic legs.
He left Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on the East Coast in July 2005 and settled in Tucson just a few months later. He found a civilian job at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.
After his injury, Kolfage began speaking publicly about his experience and even filmed a campaign ad for former Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords shortly before she was shot in 2011.
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She invited him to attend President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address as her special guest in 2012. She even told Time magazine Kolfage was one of her inspirations while she recovered.
Kolfage lived in Tucson for 10 years. He enrolled at the University of Arizona on a scholarship from the Pat Tillman Foundation and graduated in 2014 from the architecture school.
He now lives in Florida with his wife and two children.
‘It’s about the people on the outside and the inside’
As a staunch Republican, Kolfage said on the GoFundMe page his support for the wall stemmed from the belief that “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.”
He said he wants to make it clear he isn’t against immigration – as long as it’s done legally. He points to the difficult process to obtain legal citizenship as just one of the problems with the current system.
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“They came here the right way,” he explained. “They came through the front door. They did everything correctly and that’s what America is all about.”
He said his time in Tucson gave him a better understanding of the value of legal immigration and programs such as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals act (DACA), which allows children brought into the U.S. illegally to defer deportation while they become eligible for a work permit.
“That influenced me and my life,” he said. “People see the GoFundMe and they call me racist. It’s not about the wall, but it’s about the people on the outside and the inside.”
Buzzfeed raises questions
But Kolfage’s intentions were questioned by a recent BuzzFeed News article alleging he used his position to push right-wing conspiracy theories and false stories on a number of conservative media sites.
Kolfage said in an email to The Arizona Republic on Sunday afternoon that the article was intentionally trying to smear his image. He said he plans to take legal action against BuzzFeed.
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He said the claims were fabricated and provided multiple screenshots showing what he described as “fake” Facebook accounts posting under his name.
“I would NEVER say those things,” he added.
Kolfage previously made waves on social media in 2015 when he wrote a blog post objecting to an American flag with rainbow colored-stripes displayed at a home on the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.
He claimed the flag violated code dictating that the American flag should only be displayed in its original form, but the base ruled the flag was in compliance with federal law.
He later criticized the decision on a conservative news site.
The previous year, Kolfage filed a defamation lawsuit in Maricopa County Superior Court claiming social media attacks from his critics strayed into libelous territory. The Arizona Daily Star reported that one of the defendants said Kolfage posted his personal information online, resulting in threatening phone calls and messages.
Kolfage’s suit was settled privately in 2015.
Future of fundraiser uncertain during government shutdown
A budget passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday night includes $5 billion for Trump’s border wall.
Kolfage said multiple House members told him the GoFundMe influenced the vote.
“It just shows you, regardless of what happens, it impacted and changed votes that day,” Kolfage said. “I think that’s a success. We’ve done something that hasn’t been done before with immense support from around the country.”
Trump posted on Twitter on Wednesday “one way or another, we will win on the Wall!”
But negotiations in Congress later failed, ending in a partial government shutdown Friday.
There are questions about how – and if – the government could accept the donation.
The Department of Homeland Security couldn’t accept the money without the approval of Congress due to ethical concerns, according to USA TODAY.
But Republican Rep. Warren Davidson, R-Ohio, has proposed a bill that would allow the secretary of the Treasury Department to accept public donations to fund the construction of the wall.
Kolfage said his team has been working with Vice President Mike Pence and his staff to ensure the donation would go to the right place. They’re also working to create a contract with the government that would allow the funds only to be used for the wall.
“It’s only for construction of the wall, not lining someone’s pockets,” he said. “We don’t want to get involved in politics.”
If that’s not possible, or if the project secures enough funding without the fundraiser, Kolfage said he will have to decide whether to refund the money or follow some donors’ suggestions to build an immigration center for those entering the country legally.
“Somewhere nicer for children and families,” he said. “A nice place that’s more of a humane and welcome atmosphere. A place where children can play while they wait.”
There’s no set end date for the online fundraiser. Kolfage said he plans to keep the page going as long as necessary.
Follow Bree Burkitt on Twitter: @breeburkitt