Faith-Based Groups That Assist Migrants Become Targets of Extremists

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. Voice mail left for the chief executive 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, the 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 Mr. O’Keefe began posting videos on 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 J. Trump, who often vilified immigrants.

But after President 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 like Catholic Charities are now routinely targeted.

In San Diego, the threats online spawned threats in real life, as supporters of Mr. O’Keefe started appearing at other Catholic Charities sites, according to Vino Pajanor, the chief executive 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Pajanor, who oversees an operation that runs 20 facilities and employs 253 people in San Diego and Imperial counties.

Mr. 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 Mr. 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, “ Mr. 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, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, Republican of Georgia, 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, Representative Tom Tiffany of Wisconsin 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 worshipers.

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.

They have also become an integral part of many migrants’ first days in the United States. Once migrants families are released from federal custody, they are transported to shelters, where they typically stay one night. The organizations’ role in operating those shelters has made them into targets for people seeking to tap into the anxiety many Americans feel about the large numbers of migrants who have been crossing the border in recent years.

Four Republican House members, including Representative Lance Gooden of Texas and Mr. Tiffany, sent a letter in late 2022 to Catholic Charities, Jewish Family Service and Lutheran Immigrant and Refugee Service, now called Global Refuge, accusing them of “fueling the drastic increase in illegal aliens crossing the southern border.” The congressmen alleged that the nonprofits were misusing public funds and committing federal crimes, and instructed them to preserve documents in preparation for an investigation.

In a public response, Catholic Charities forcefully denied the allegations and said that, “to care for people who are at-risk, including vulnerable people on the move, is a part of the fabric of the global Catholic Church and is mandated by the Gospel.”

Last October, Stew Peters, a white nationalist and radio-show host, broadcast a speech on X and Rumble, where he has more than one million followers combined, calling for troops to “shoot people that are trying to invade our country.”

“That’d be a good first step,” he said. “But you know what a better second step would be? Shooting everyone involved with these fake charities.” He claimed that Catholic Charities was coaching “illegals on how to get admitted here,” an accusation the group strenuously denies.

Catholic Charities USA alerted its member agencies across the country about the threat, and some of the agencies adjusted their security resources and protocols.

In early February, Mr. O’Keefe appeared at a Catholic shelter in Tucson disguised as a vagrant, and was shooed away by sheriff’s deputies, according to a video he uploaded on X. He said that a person who infiltrated the facility was told that “many gang members come through in caravans.”

For about a month, staff members who were listed on the website of Catholic Community Services of Southern Arizona, which runs the shelter, received “obscene calls,” said Joe Leisz, a director.

Security was bolstered and a doorbell camera was installed at a center that offers services to the deaf and blind, after unsettling visits by people demanding to know “where we were hiding the trafficked children, the illegals,” Mr. Leisz said.

Also in February, Ben Bergquam a far-right personality who has said that he was in a fight to restore the nation’s identity, posted a video on X recorded outside and inside Catholic Charities in Cincinnati, calling the organization ”one of the main beneficiaries of the invasion.”

Mr. Bergquam attacked the charity on a podcast hosted by Steve Bannon, the former White House strategist. Mr. Bannon, for his part, called Catholic, Lutheran and Jewish groups that help immigrants “demons” and “anti-American.”

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,” Cassandra Castellanos, the site director, recalled.

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

In it, Mr. 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. Mr. 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, Ms. 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.

Kitty Bennett contributed research.

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