San Diego Catholic Charities Struggles With Security Risks After Accusation of ‘Smuggling’

For years, San Diego Catholic Charities has offered immigrant services in the Diocese of San Diego.

Tijuana and San Diego residents line up at the Otay gate to cross the Tijuana border passing carts with merchandise for sale.
Tijuana and San Diego residents line up at the Otay gate to cross the Tijuana border passing carts with merchandise for sale. (photo: Julio Ortega / Shutterstock)

A California Catholic charity has been struggling for weeks to deal with ongoing security risks amid claims that the organization is illegally sheltering and trafficking migrants.

Catholic Charities Diocese of San Diego CEO Vino Pajanor told CNA that the ongoing chaos, which includes protests and harassing messages, has been a shock even to workers who have served at the organization for decades.

“They have never seen something like this,” he said.

The difficulties began earlier this year after activist-journalist James O’Keefe reported on what he described as an “illegal immigrant compound” at a Ramada Suites in San Diego. In the video, O’Keefe suggests the facility is involved in the trafficking of illegal immigrants. 

At one point O’Keefe’s team identifies what it claims is a list of “people who run the facility,” which included workers listed with the San Diego Catholic Charities. O’Keefe also posted an organizational chart of the charity group on X.

The New York Times reported on June 2 that Catholic Charities Diocese of San Diego began experiencing protests and harassing calls after O’Keefe’s allegations. Pajanor, meanwhile, told CNA this week that the organization is still dealing with those threats. 

“More of [O’Keefe’s] followers” have been demonstrating, he said, “thinking that we are harboring undocumented ‘illegal’ individuals, and that we are smuggling kids and trafficking kids.”

“Protesters have come to our buildings,” he said. “Over the weekend they protested in front of our migrant shelter, blocking our driveway for about an hour, until the local police came by.”

There is no truth, Pajanor said, to the suggestion that the charity is participating in a smuggling scheme. 

“None at all,” he said. “None at all.”

O’Keefe did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Spokeswoman for Catholic Charities Diocese of San Diego Kimberly Ortiz told CNA that the charity has “a lease with the hotel and CCDSD does the day-to-day management of the shelter operations.” 

“The hotel management does the janitorial, upkeep, and maintenance of the hotel,” she said. 

‘Exactly what Jesus calls us to do’

For years, San Diego Catholic Charities has offered immigrant services in the Diocese of San Diego. The charity group’s main headquarters is fewer than two dozen miles from the U.S.-Mexico border. 

On its website Catholic Charities Diocese of San Diego says it aspires to be “the premier nonprofit provider of immigration services in San Diego and Imperial Counties.” It offers immigrants help with applications and other services with the aim to “enable eligible immigrants to obtain legal immigrant or citizenship status.”

Pajanor said the organization began operating migrant shelters in April 2021 amid a surge of illegal immigration to the U.S. “We’ve always been open about what we’re doing,” he said. 

The organization shared material with CNA showing that it has assisted more than 245,000 individuals since the shelters opened — many from Colombia, Ecuador, and Brazil. About 25% have been children.

“Every one of these individuals are processed by [the U.S. Border Patrol],” Pajanor said. “Every one of them has a notice to appear in a court of law. Once they get that notice, Border Patrol releases them to us.” 

“When they come to Catholic Charities, every one of them has a document,” he said. “They’re all documented individuals in the United States. Not a single one is undocumented.” 

“There’s nothing illegal about what Catholic Charities is doing,” he said. “What we are doing is a humanitarian service.”

The CEO said the group has been forced to deal with a logistical headache of security in the months since O’Keefe made his allegations. 

“It made us add more security,” he said, saying the process involves both “unnecessary costs and unnecessary fear for our team members and clients and guests coming to our location.”

“This has cost us unnecessary work and unnecessary expenses while we’re taking care of the people coming to ask us for help,” he said.

Pajanor said the security process is a “constant pain.”

“Every time that a sporadic group wants to protest, we have to add security,” he said. “Either we add security ahead of time or we add it afterwards until it dies down.”

Amid successive years of record illegal immigration, San Diego has lately been at the center of illegal border crossings. U.S. government data show that the city’s border enforcement has encountered more than 220,000 illegal immigrants fiscal year-to-date, seconded only by Tucson. 

Pajanor argued that the immigrant facilities run by the San Diego charity group are addressing both a humanitarian crisis and the local civic emergency of rising homeless populations. 

“We’re preventing them from being homeless in the streets,” he said. “If we’re not involved with Border Patrol to bring them to migrant shelters, those hundreds of individuals every day would end up on the streets of San Diego and add to the homeless population.”

The CEO expressed disappointment over the negative response to its migrant work. 

“Matthew 25 calls us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, and visit prisoners,” he said. “That’s our faith and that’s our belief. And we are doing exactly what Jesus calls us to do.”

“We are here to serve the community,” he said. “Why are they targeting us?”