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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Faith-based groups that assist migrants become targets of extremists

A group of migrant families are taken by a shuttle arranged by Catholic Charities Diocese of San Diego to the San Diego International Airport to catch flights to different cities, May 8, 2024. Charities that feed, clothe and shelter border crossers fear for the safety of their employees and volunteers as the election nears and the vitriol over immigration intensifies. (Ariana Drehsler/The New York Times)

By Miriam Jordan

A man posing as a pest exterminator tried to gain access to a San Diego hotel that operates as a shelter for migrant families. The next day, a woman showed up claiming to be an immigrant in need of help. Workers at the shelter, run by Catholic Charities, turned away both impostors.

Three days later, menacing calls began pouring in to the staff. Voicemail left for the CEO called him “scum” and “not really Christian.” A woman left another staff member an expletive-laced message about Catholics. She claimed that the nonprofit was flying migrants all over the country and profiting from an illegal operation.

The bogus exterminator was James O’Keefe, a right wing-provocateur who used to head Project Veritas, a group known for trying to entrap political opponents by using disguises and concealed cameras. The deluge of vitriol ensued after O’Keefe began posting videos on the social platform X in March claiming that the shelter was an illegal holding site for women and children and speculating, without evidence, that they had been trafficked.

For decades, Catholic Charities and other faith-based organizations have played a crucial role helping federal authorities and local governments manage influxes of migrants. Their work has been funded with bipartisan support in Congress, even through the presidency of Donald Trump, who often vilified immigrants.

But after President Joe Biden took office in 2021 promising a more humane approach to migration, these faith-based groups have increasingly become the subjects of conspiracy theories and targets for far-right activists and Republican members of Congress, who accuse them of promoting an invasion to displace white Americans and engaging in child trafficking and migrant smuggling. The organizations say those claims are baseless.

Much like public officials who have faced increased threats to their security, employees of groups such as Catholic Charities are now routinely targeted.

In San Diego, the threats online spawned threats in real life, as supporters of O’Keefe’s started appearing at other Catholic Charities sites, according to Vino Pajanor, CEO of Catholic Charities San Diego.

Private armed guards were posted at Catholic Charities facilities across the city, including at a shelter for homeless women and a center for Afghan refugees, after people, apparently prompted by O’Keefe’s posts, came searching for “smuggled” children.

Volunteers at the facilities were sent home, and employees who continued to work were advised to keep a low profile. Do not wear Catholic Charities T-shirts or badges outside the facility, they were told. Put on a face mask to obscure your identity, in the event that someone tries to film you.

“We had never seen this level of harassment,” said Pajanor, who oversees an operation that runs 20 facilities and employs 253 people in San Diego and Imperial counties.

O’Keefe did not respond to requests for comment for this article. Instead, he posted a video online in which he refers to those requests and mocks shelter workers’ complaints about harassment.

Even before O’Keefe turned up in San Diego, Catholic Charities was on alert for trouble stirred by the heated rhetoric around migrants and the border. Staff members who work with migrants completed active-shooter training two weeks before he appeared.

“I had been telling our team to be prepared for things to get tough as we get closer to the election,” Pajanor said.

In Congress and in state legislatures, some Republicans have lent legitimacy to the disinformation about the nonprofit groups by echoing it themselves.

In April, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., berated Alejandro Mayorkas, the Homeland Security secretary, for his past service on the board of HIAS, a refugee resettlement agency formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. She claimed that the group was “not only financing the invasion of the country, but also telling illegal aliens to vote in the United States elections.”

Last year, Rep. Tom Tiffany, R-Wis., claimed during a House Judiciary Committee hearing that nongovernmental organizations working on the border “are complicit in the greatest human trafficking operation perhaps in the history of the world.”

The risk of such incendiary allegations is that they could spur threats like those against Catholic Charities and, worse, could instigate violence.

“When you have this kind of hateful rhetoric spreading, and those who are supposed to be trusted echoing it or egging it on, some people hear a call to action,” said Cynthia Miller-Idriss, a professor at American University who studies extremism.

There is also a history of anti-immigration sentiment blurring into antisemitism. HIAS, for instance, was a target of antisemitic rants posted on social media by Robert Bowers, the gunman who attacked the Tree of Life synagogue in 2018 and killed 11 worshippers.

Catholic Charities and other faith-based organizations have long run pantries and homeless shelters and have assisted migrants, seniors and others in need of care across the country.

For the shelter staff in San Diego, the appearances of the fake exterminator and the faux migrant seemed like just another day in the middle of America’s political fray over immigration.

“I didn’t think much of it,” site director Cassandra Castellanos recalled.

Three days later, O’Keefe’s video was posted on X to his 2.4 million followers and spread quickly.

In it, O’Keefe taunted security guards who denied him access to the shelter premises, and he speculated, without proof, that migrants inside the facility had been trafficked.

An early version of the video contained an image of a whiteboard listing names and phone numbers of staff members at the shelter. O’Keefe blurred the image after X informed him that the image violated its policy. But a screenshot of the organizational chart of Catholic Charities in San Diego remained on his feed.

Inundated with threats, Castellanos deleted her social media accounts.

“It only takes one person to really believe what James O’Keefe is saying, to try to hurt me to try to save the children or people we are supposedly smuggling,” she said.

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