ACLU donations surge: Who are Americans backing to battle Trump policies?

The ACLU received a surge of $24 million in donations this weekend as opponents of President Trump's refugee policy threw their support behind the civil rights group. But how effective are legal advocacy groups at challenging federal policies?

Trish Badger/Reuters
Protesters and ACLU legal observers gather at Discovery Green Park during Super Bowl events in Houston, Texas, on Sunday.

Online donations to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) skyrocketed to an unprecedented $24.1 million this weekend after the organization challenged President Trump's executive order that banned travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States. Donors usually only give about $4 million dollars to the organization in a typical year.

On Friday, the ACLU brought a lawsuit before a US federal judge that resulted in a temporary halt in deportations connected with the order. Protesters in the US and abroad hailed the move as an important stand against the controversial decision by Mr. Trump.

While Mr. Trump's calls for a ban on Muslims entering the US drew extensive opposition on the campaign trail, his successful bid for the presidency, combined with majority victories for the Republican Party in the Senate and the House of Representatives, has left many of his political opponents adrift. Between a weakened Democratic minority and oft-ignored Republican moderates, some Trump opponents are now turning to non-governmental advocacy groups such as the ACLU, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, as the most effective way to counter Trump's policies.

"Advocacy groups are always pursuing legal actions against duly elected presidents, governors and other elected officials," Margaret Groarke, a professor of government at Manhattan College, tells The Christian Science Monitor in an email. "It is a strategy to hold the people we have elected accountable."

But while the ACLU has taken on both Republicans and Democrats in the past, things are a little different under Trump. Since the presidential election, ACLU membership has more than doubled to more than 1 million members, with 140,000 additional people signing up for the site's mailing list since Saturday, USA Today reports. Compared with January 2016, this month has seen a 1,900 percent increase in the number of gifts received by the advocacy group.

"I've never seen anything like this," Anthony Romero, executive director of the ACLU, told Yahoo News. "People are fired up and want to be engaged. What we've seen is an unprecedented public reaction to the challenges of the Trump administration."

The $24.1 million coming in over the weekend was a result of donations from ordinary citizens, often matched by celebrity donations. Corporations, including Lyft, which pledged $1 million to the legal group on Sunday, contributed to the massive influx of money to the ACLU. 

Google also created a $2 million legal fund that can be matched with up to $2 million in donations from its employees, totaling $4 million, to be directed to four organizations: the ACLU, Immigrant Legal Resource Center, International Rescue Committee, and UNHCR, USA Today reported.

On Monday, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) joined the legal fray, filing a complaint in a federal court in Virginia, suing under the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...."

Trump has objected to the characterization of the executive action as a ban on Muslim migrants. "This is not about religion - this is about terror and keeping our country safe," he wrote in a Facebook post Sunday. Trump advisor and former mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani told Fox News, however, that Trump had asked him how to follow through with the Muslim ban proposed during his campaign without running afoul of the law. "And what we did was we focused on, instead of religion, danger." Mr. Giuliani said.

While most of the ACLU's weekend donations were prompted by the lawsuit that brought about the temporary halt to Trump's immigration ban, the ultimate success of the lawsuit remains uncertain. The Friday decision by a New York federal judge does not reflect any judgment on the constitutionality of the ban and will remain temporary unless the ACLU is able to prove that the executive order violates the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the US Constitution. 

But for many Americans who object to Trump's decision to tighten the border and halt the flow of refugees from certain countries, any tangible result is a step in the right direction, says Todd Eberly, coordinator of public policy studies at St. Mary's College of Maryland.

"They have the Senate to challenge his legislative agenda. The power of the filibuster means that Democrats can tie his legislative priorities in knots," Dr. Eberly tells the Monitor via email. "But they won't have the power to roll back his executive actions via Congress. So in many ways, the courts are their best shot."

But the ability of organizations like the ACLU to effectively function in direct opposition to the federal government system is limited. According to a post detailing a seven-point plan to challenge the Trump administration published earlier this month, the ACLU has around 300 litigators, compared to thousands of lawyers throughout various agencies in the federal government. And unlike the federal government, legislative advocacy groups cannot make comprehensive policy, explains Eberly.

"A court opinion is 'piecemeal,' as it can only address the specific issues in the case," he says. "It cannot fashion a comprehensive policy. Courts can only rule when litigation arrives before them, not in timely response to the onset of public problems." 

While the influx of donations may help the ACLU tackle more cases, the length of the court processes will make any kind of sweeping changes difficult to make in a timely manner, especially against any kind of resistance from the Trump administration. But despite these difficulties, Manhattan College's Dr. Groarke says that non-governmental advocacy groups do have a pretty good track record of making meaningful changes, despite governmental resistance.

"There is a long history of [non-governmental organizations] – interest groups, social movements, community organizations – successfully pressuring a resistant Federal Government for change," Groarke tells the Monitor. "Women shook the gates of the White House for the vote. The NAACP, from its founding on, brought lawsuits to force the government to live up to the promises of the Constitution. Many of the campaigns of the Civil Rights Movement were designed to force the Federal government to make law, or enforce the law, so as to protect the constitutional rights of African-Americans."

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