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Judge scolds Texas official for targeting Catholic migrant shelter

The state attorney general suspects El Paso ministry is helping immigrants break the law

Immigrants wait in line for food provided by Annunciation House in El Paso, Texas. Getty Images / Photo by Joe Raedle

Judge scolds Texas official for targeting Catholic migrant shelter

For 46 years, the Roman Catholic nonprofit Annunciation House has provided shelter for migrants in El Paso, Texas. The ministry says it has housed hundreds of thousands of migrants since it opened in the 1970s.

Last month, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton ordered the ministry to hand over some of its records to prove its compliance with Texas law, sparking a back-and-forth legal battle.

On March 10, a state judge blocked Paxton’s attempt to obtain the ministry’s records. In a sharply worded decision, Judge Francisco Dominguez also expressed concerns that Paxton’s actions targeted faith-based migrant shelters.

“The attorney general’s efforts to run roughshod over Annunciation House, without regard to due process or fair play, call into question the true motivation for the attorney general’s attempt to prevent Annunciation House from providing the humanitarian and social services that it provides,” Dominguez wrote.

Paxton has filed dozens of lawsuits against the federal government regarding its immigration policies. Texas argues that federal inaction is contributing to the influx of thousands of people who cross the border illegally or without prior authorization each day. The flood of migrants is worsening the U.S. fentanyl crisis and overwhelming the social safety nets of cities across the country. Texas and the federal government are locked in legal battles over how to respond to the crisis.

In the Annunciation House dispute, the judge ruled that the attorney general had disregarded due process by demanding the ministry provide vast amounts of documents one day after serving it an administrative subpoena. Paxton wanted records on the services the shelter offers, along with all documents the ministry gives to its residents, to evaluate the shelter’s “potential legal violations,” a court filing stated.

On March 10, Judge Dominguez ruled the case is subject to the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure. These rules provide discovery deadlines for processing and reviewing documents and were “created to ensure fair play between litigants,” the judge wrote.

Dominguez said that Paxton’s initial subpoena did not cite which laws the attorney general’s office believed the nonprofit was violating. The ministry told the Attorney General’s Office it could provide the documents within 30 days instead of one, and Paxton said if the documents weren’t provided by the next day, the nonprofit would be deemed noncompliant.

Annunciation House then petitioned for a temporary restraining order against Paxton’s actions. In response, the attorney general countersued on Feb. 16, attempting to shut down the shelter.

Paxton’s office released a statement saying it had information “strongly suggesting” Annunciation House had engaged in “alien harboring, human smuggling, and operating a stash house.”

According to an earlier court filing, Paxton argued the shelter was concealing and harboring illegal immigrants from government detection. “Annunciation House’s transportation of those aliens presents a very significant likelihood of human smuggling,” the document said. It also said the attorney general suspected the shelter is coaching illegal immigrants in how to file bogus asylum claims.

In a Feb. 23 press release, Annunciation House contested that Paxton’s “illegal, immoral and anti-faith position” is “unfounded.” The shelter seeks to provide “humane support” for people in need who come through the El Paso community, the group said, adding that it seeks to do its work because of the “scriptural and Gospel mandate to welcome the stranger.”

“Annunciation House’s response to the stranger is no different from that of the schools who enroll children of refugees, the clinics and hospitals who care for the needs of refugees, and the churches, synagogues, and mosques who welcome families to join in worship,” the group said. “If the work that Annunciation House conducts is illegal—so too is the work of our local hospitals, schools, and food banks.”

On Feb. 21, Dominguez granted the shelter’s temporary restraining order, which lasted until a March 7 hearing.

At the hearing, the judge said Paxton’s office was “rude and unprofessional” when it made its demands to the nonprofit, according to The Texas Tribune. Regarding Annunciation House, Dominguez said he’s only heard a “willingness to comply.”

“There was no attempt whatsoever to negotiate by the attorney general, which is what gives the court rise for concern that there are ulterior political motives here taking place that go outside of what the law requires, go outside of what the law demands,” Dominguez said at the hearing.

Jerome Wesevich, lead counsel at Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid which represents Annunciation House, raised confidentiality concerns about Paxton’s order.

“Annunciation House needs to collect sensitive information, including health information, concerning its guests,” Wesevich said in a statement. “It is imperative for the safety and well-being of the community that the releasing of this sensitive information be handled with care and the law in mind.”

In a similar legal battle in 2020, four immigration activists, compelled by their religious beliefs, left food and water for migrants crossing the border in the desert in Arizona. Authorities brought criminal charges against the activists, but a district judge later dismissed the charges.

The judge said their actions had legal protection under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Paxton’s actions against the shelter violate fundamental religious liberties, said Matthew Soerens, U.S. director of church mobilization for World Relief, an organization that works with churches to help them better serve refugees.

In border towns across the country, Christians and churches are working to provide for vulnerable migrants, Soerens said. He added that he has visited Annunciation House and seen how its work is compelled by a religious conviction to aid strangers.

“I hope that the attorney general there in Texas will just be particularly cautious in recognizing that a faith-based organization has constitutional rights to exercise their religious beliefs by caring for vulnerable migrants,” Soerens said. “There ought to be very compelling evidence of a violation of law before threatening to shut down a Christian ministry.”

Liz Lykins

Liz is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute.


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