Why More Brands Aren’t Helping Out With the Humanitarian Crisis on the US Border

Companies face difficult choices—and the government isn’t exactly making it easy

Crowd of people fenced in at the U.S. Border Control Station in McAllen, Texas.
Conditions at the U.S. Border Control station in McAllen, Texas, on June 10. Getty Images

When it comes to socially progressive companies, it’s hard to find one more progressive than Vista, Calif.-based Dr. Bronner’s soap.

Family-owned, B Corporation certified, the top-selling brand of organic personal care products in the country, Dr. Bronner’s gives 7% of its revenues to charitable causes, maintains strict fair-trade policies globally and insists that “we must realize our transcendent unity across religious and ethnic divides or perish.”

So when the news broke several weeks ago about the conditions endured by immigrant children in shelters run by the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP)—such as children sleeping on bare cement floors and doing without necessities like soap, toothpaste, blankets and even food—customers of Dr. Bronner’s (who tend to be as progressive as the brand) began clamoring for the company to do something to help. After all, if kids were in need of soap, wouldn’t it make sense for a soap company to give them some?

Company president Michael Bronner thought so. “When it comes to our soap, [and] when it comes to a catastrophe, we’re the first company people go to,” he said.

And indeed, Dr. Bronner’s has an established track record of donating its products to people affected by natural disasters.

But in the case of donating goods to government-run immigrant shelters, Dr. Bronner’s hit a brick wall. “Basically, we looked into it, and it was difficult,” Bronner said. “I knew they weren’t accepting [donations]—so we didn’t try.”

The experience of Dr. Bronner’s is a partial answer to a question that’s been looming behind the innumerable news stories about the dire conditions in CBP-run border facilities in recent weeks: If there’s such a desperate need for basic supplies like bedding and toiletries, why aren’t American companies that make those goods stepping forward to donate them?

It’s a reasonable question to ask. After all, legion are the stories of brands going to impressive lengths to assist with any number of humanitarian crises in the country. In the wake of the disastrous hurricane seasons of 2017 and 2018, for instance, Airbnb hosts opened their homes as shelters, Uber and Lyft offered free rides, Walmart sent breakfast bars and Anheuser-Busch dispatched trucks full of canned water, to name just a few.

So where are these altruistic brands when it comes to woefully undersupplied shelters? Why aren’t trucks full of supplies pulling up at the front doors? It turns out, there are several answers to that question, but the predominant one is this: The government itself will not let it happen.

A 149-year-old obstacle

It may come as a surprise to civic-minded citizens, but the obstacle standing in the way of ameliorating this 21st-century problem is a 19th-century law.

The Antideficiency Act, which has been on the books since 1870, prohibits federal agencies from spending monies that Congress has not allocated, a prohibition that includes “accepting voluntary services for the United States, or employing personal services not authorized by law.”

Translated to everyday circumstances, it means that CBP cannot accept donated goods, either.

“You’ve nailed the primary factor on why [brands] can’t deliver supplies—they’re not allowed to,” affirmed Amy Jo Albinak, development director for the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Chicago. “Customs and Border Protection can’t accept [donations], and they can’t use things they had funding [already] allocated to pay for.”

Logo of Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights.

The intent of the law was—and remains—a noble one: It’s designed to prevent abuse and keep federal agencies fiscally accountable. But the inadvertent effects of the Antideficiency Act can feel heartless and absurd. Residents of Clint, Texas (site of the shelter whose dire conditions first made headlines last month), recently found this out after dropping off toys and diapers in front of the CBP facility there. As reported by the Texas Tribune, which broke the story, the group was dismayed to find the facility’s front doors locked and their donations left outside, ignored.

Migrant children held in dismal conditions at CBP's Clint, Texas, facility turned into a major news event.
Getty Images

@UpperEastRob robert.klara@adweek.com Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.