“Nothing has moved me more deeply than the time I’ve spent with the families of the Remembrance Project,” then-candidate Donald Trump said last year at a high-priced fundraiser for the group, which claims to help families of people killed by undocumented immigrants.
Now, many of those families say the group raised money using their names and stories while they never saw a dime, according to a report by Politico.
“Trump used the Remembrance Project to get to us, and the Remembrance Project also used him,” former Remembrance Project participant Brenda Sparks told Politico.
Sparks’ son died when his motorcycle was in a crash with a car driven by an undocumented immigrant, Politico reported. She spoke at Trump rallies last year alongside several other families involved in the Remembrance Project.
Trump joined forces with the Remembrance Project just three week after he announced his candidacy by calling undocumented immigrants from Mexico “rapists” in June 2015, according to Politico.
“It’s a very sad occasion,” Trump told reporters as he stood flanked by Remembrance Project families at a press conference after the meeting. “I just spent quite a bit of time with these incredible families going over the loss of their children.”
Several families involved with the Remembrance Project went on to speak at Trump rallies, in campaign ads, and at the Republican National Convention.
Families and donors interviewed by Politico said Maria Espinoza, who founded the Remembrance project with her husband Tim Lyng in Texas in 2010, lead them to believe donations to the group would help families cover their medical and legal expenses.
Instead, they told Politico, Espinoza used the groups to further her own political career. Espinoza unsuccessfully ran against Rep. John Culberson of Texas in the Republican primary last year, Politico said . She ran with support from White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon and Breitbart News, the online publication Bannon headed at the time. She is reportedly considering another run in 2018.
“The more involved I got, once I got past my son’s trial and could focus more on the organization, it just seemed like my values and my goals were different than what Maria’s were,” Maureen Maloney told Politico. Her son was killed by a drunk driver who was an undocumented immigrant. “It started to feel like this might be a steppingstone for her.”
Many of the groups’ political activities also raised questions about its 501(c)3 nonprofit status. Under IRS regulations, nonprofits like the Remembrance Project cannot engage in significant grassroots lobbying. However, those rules are seldom enforced, according to Politico.
Espinoza denied to Politico ever misleading families or donors about how the group would use donations, saying that the Remembrance Project never said it engaged in direct support.
The White House did not return Politico’s requests for comment.
Meanwhile, Epsinoza and Lyng are starting a new 501(c)4 nonprofit that would be able to more freely lobby and endorse or oppose candidates for office, Politico reports.
The Remembrance Project also now has an office in Washington, D.C., which it says will support a new division within the Department of Homeland Security that addresses crimes committed by undocumented immigrants.
“My motives are to be able to save other lives from being stolen because of illegal immigration,” Espinoza told Politico. “That’s our mission.”