Threats to Catholic Charities staffers increase

Immigrants from Honduras, Gerarado Reconco Lara, center, with his children Maria, 6, and Gerardo, 8, leave a Catholic Charities facility July 23, 2018, in San Antonio. The family was reunited the night before. — AP Photo/Eric Gay

The man who left a recording on Appaswamy “Vino” Pajanor’s voicemail earlier this month spoke with an even keel, but his message was anything but calm. Over the course of roughly 40 seconds, the caller accused Pajanor, the head of Catholic Charities San Diego, of “facilitating illegal immigration,” “breaking the law” and being “not really Christian.”

The man saved his most volatile remarks for last, calling Pajanor, an immigrant and U.S. citizen, “scum” and much worse before ending with “Go back to India, you piece of garbage,” according to a recording provided to Religion News Service.

Over the past few months, Pajanor and staffers at Catholic Charities across the country, a decentralized, 113-year-old faith-based non-profit, have become the targets of right-leaning media personalities, conspiracy theorists and even members of Congress. The smear campaign is rooted in opposition to offering aid to immigrants, which critics frame as incentivizing illegal immigration, while sometimes accusing faith groups of breaking the law or working with drug cartels.

The result has been a series of unsettling incidents that have transpired near or even inside Catholic Charities facilities in what officials say is a rapidly growing threat to their safety.

“We have never seen this level,” Pajanor said, referring to the avalanche of vitriol he and his staff have received. “Some of our team members have been here for 20, 30 years, and they have said they have never seen such a thing happen.”

Some local agencies of Catholic Charities assist migrants after they’ve been processed by Customs and Border Protection, providing resources such as food, clothing and short-term housing before asylum-seekers depart for other parts of the country ahead of a scheduled court date with immigration officials. The Catholic group is one of several faith-based organizations — including Lutheran and Jewish groups, among others — that have long partnered with the federal government to offer such services.

“Catholic Charities agencies staff and volunteers all around the country choose to spend their time serving those most in need, like families whose homes were destroyed by a natural disaster, seniors who can’t afford their medicine, and hungry children in need of a nutritious meal,” Kerry Alys Robinson, president and CEO of Catholic Charities USA, the national membership organization that advocates for local agencies, said in a statement.

“Their work should earn respect and admiration, not demonization.”

For Pajanor, whose group operates homeless shelters and 14 food pantries in the city, the recent avalanche of hate followed a visit by James O’Keefe, a far-right provocateur who was recently forced out of Project Veritas, the activist organization he founded, following complaints regarding his treatment of staff. O’Keefe appeared earlier this month with a film crew outside a hotel that was being used by Catholic Charities San Diego to house migrants who had been processed by CBP.

In videos posted to social media, O’Keefe and his team can be seen questioning security guards outside the hotel. O’Keefe even posed as an exterminator to try to gain entry. On multiple occasions, O’Keefe suggests migrants in the hotel came into the country illegally and speculates, without offering evidence, that some were being trafficked.

Pajanor reacted to the allegations with exasperation.

“We are helping those individuals who are here legally,” he said. “Every one of them has a notice to appear in a court of law.”

In his video report, O’Keefe included an image of a whiteboard containing the names and contact information of Catholic Charities and their staff.

“Immediately after that post went viral online people started calling team members with threats,” Pajanor said, adding that his team has now increased security at facilities throughout the city — including ones that have nothing to do with migrants.

San Diego Cardinal Robert McElroy condemned O’Keefe’s actions in a statement to RNS. Describing the incident as an “assault” on Catholic Charities, McElroy accused O’Keefe and his team of “illegal entry,” of victimizing legal immigrants and of criticizing the Church for providing food and shelter, “as the Lord commands.” McElroy also condemned the publicizing of staff’s personal identities and data, “subjecting them to death threats and the destruction of their private lives.”

“Christ weeps at the invocation of His name to justify such outrages,” according to McElroy’s emailed statement.

Catholic Charities officials say the incident is just the latest in a string of attacks on their work.

Similar videos were made by far-right figures at Catholic Charities facilities in Laredo, Texas, and in Southwestern Ohio, prompting a slew of threatening phone calls and leading the organizations to increase security, the directors of both facilities told RNS.

Rebecca Solloa, the executive director of Catholic Charities in Laredo, said that, while the threatening calls her facility had received were not local, she still instructed her staff to take precautions like avoiding wearing Catholic Charities’ apparel in public. “Having seen and learned about what happened in El Paso, anybody can come from the outside to hurt the community,” said Solloa, referencing a 2019 mass shooting that killed 23 and which the shooter said was a response “to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.”

Despite the vitriolic rhetoric and conspiracy theories, Tony Stieritz, the CEO of Catholic Charities Southwestern Ohio, which was the target of a Feb. 9 Bergquam video linking the organization to migrants on the border who said they were going to Cincinnati, said that the over 800 volunteers at his facility fall “in love with the work that we do.”

“We will stand resolute in serving the poor and vulnerable regardless of where they come from,” Stieritz said.

Aleja Hertzler-McCain

Aleja Hertzler-McCain is a writer with Religion News Service.

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