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Without evidence, Gov. Greg Abbott asks whether nonprofits are helping migrants enter Texas

By James Barragán, The Texas Tribune

Without evidence, Gov. Greg Abbott asks whether nonprofits are helping migrants enter Texas” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Gov. Greg Abbott called Wednesday for the state to investigate whether nonprofit organizations have helped people enter the country illegally, adding another talking point to his border hawk arsenal and another headache to humanitarian relief groups that help migrants in Texas.

Abbott made his request in a letter to Attorney General Ken Paxton in which he cited the increased number of migrants expected at the border once Title 42 — a federal public health order issued near the start of the pandemic that officials have used to turn away migrants at the border — comes to an end in a few days at a time of record migrant crossings. Earlier this week, 1,500 people waded across the low waters in the Rio Grande and into El Paso in one crossing, stressing the city’s limited resources to deal with migrants.

Without citing any evidence, Abbott said he had received reports that nongovernmental organizations — a term that generally refers to nonprofit, humanitarian groups — “may be engaged in unlawfully orchestrating other border crossings through activities on both sides of the border, including in sectors other than El Paso.”

“In light of these reports, I am calling on the Texas Attorney General’s Office to initiate an investigation into the role of NGOs in planning and facilitating the illegal transportation of illegal immigrants across our borders,” Abbott wrote, adding that he is ready to “craft any sensible legislative solutions [Paxton’s] office may propose that are aimed at solving the ongoing border crisis and the role that NGOs may play in encouraging it.”

Abbott’s office did not respond to a question asking what reports his office was citing. Fox News reported Monday that Mexican police had escorted 20 buses from other parts of Mexico to nongovernmental organizations at Mexican border cities. The outlet reported that the migrants then walked from the nongovernmental organizations and crossed illegally into El Paso.

Texas does not have jurisdiction over Mexican nongovernmental organizations, and the reporting did not allege any improper action by a U.S.-based nongovernmental organization.

Still, nonprofit groups working to help migrants on the border say Abbott’s call for investigations could make their jobs harder. The move drew an immediate rebuke from Democratic lawmakers and local officials.

“Governor Abbott’s decision to investigate NGOs that are providing humanitarian care for migrants is shameful and intended to intimidate and instill fear in non-profit and faith-based organizations that exemplify the values we should all aspire to,” U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, said in a statement. “Most border NGOs that work tirelessly on the border help provide temporary shelter, food and hospitality to migrants, most of whom will be awaiting adjudication of their asylum claims with sponsors they have in different parts of the country. They have been doing this work for decades and deserve our praise, not persecution.”

Dylan Corbett, executive director of the El Paso-based Hope Border Institute, said in a statement that Abbott’s language was “alarming and an unequivocal attempt to intimidate humanitarian organizations working on the front lines.”

“This is a moment for border communities to come together to meet a humanitarian challenge. We need the support and collaboration of the government at all levels, not political grandstanding that dangerously approaches criminalizing Good Samaritans,” Corbett said.

In Texas, nonprofits that aid migrants play a crucial role. Once migrants are released by federal officials into border cities, which frequently do not have the resources to deal with the large number of people crossing the border, these groups help temporarily house the migrants and help them find transportation to other parts of the country. In many areas, immigration officials bring migrants to nonprofit groups once they have already been processed by the federal government and are free to be released.

The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, said that the nonprofits’ efforts to shelter and process the migrants incentivizes them to come to the United States and “facilitates the Biden Border crisis.”

“We’re absolutely against NGOs serving a role in this border function,” said Mike Howell, director of the Heritage Oversight Project, which conducts investigations for the foundation in an effort to drive policy change. “It’s a magnet for human aliens.”

Howell said he welcomed Abbott’s call for an investigation into the nonprofits.

But without the nonprofits’ work, border cities would likely have more migrants roaming the streets without any way to move on if they’re trying to reach a different destination where they may have family members or a support group to help them until their immigration process is finalized. Abbott has even partnered with some nonprofit groups to carry out his policy of busing migrants to Democrat-led cities like Washington, D.C., New York, Chicago and Philadelphia.

Howell said he understood why cities felt the need to provide transportation to other destinations but that his group would prefer if states simply deported migrants across the U.S.-Mexico border. Federal law does not allow states to enforce immigration law, but Howell said he supports state efforts to test those laws.

Muzaffar Chishti, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute, said Abbott’s call for investigating NGOs is “counterintuitive” to the work the Texas government does with nonprofit organizations.

“The Abbott administration has used NGOs to do part of their job of trying to move people from Texas to other parts of the country. They are dependent on NGOs for bringing some semblance of control which otherwise would be in their eyes an uncontrollable situation for the cities of Texas,” Chishti said. “You can’t then turn around and say the same NGOs are also aiding and abetting the migrant crisis.”

Chishti said Abbott’s call for an investigation is likely a politically motivated move given the news reports about large numbers of migrants entering the state over the last few days. The way he delegated the investigation to Paxton is also tactical because Abbott gets credit for calling for an investigation and none of the blame if nothing comes of it.

“It looks less political and gives himself a little legal cover by saying, ‘I’m not making any political decisions, I’m just asking the attorney general to investigate,’” Chishti said. “Since it implies that there is some legal wrong here, he thinks it’s safer to let the attorney general be the bad guy politically if there’s nothing to pursue.”

Chishti also said that the targeting of nonprofit groups instead of the federal government in the immigration battle indicates a new level of escalation.

“He’s already kind of milked that cow against [President Joe] Biden and the federal administration by bringing legal challenges to almost everything the Biden administration has done or not done, so they’re looking for other villains,” he said. “It’s not just enough to go after the administration, you go after private actors.”

After Abbott’s call for an investigation, Paxton’s office announced it was looking into three legal aid groups suspected of “aiding and abetting the invasion of illegal aliens.” In a news release, Paxton’s office said it was requesting information from three groups that provide legal aid to migrants as part of their work: the Equal Justice Center, the Tahirih Justice Center and American Gateways.

Each of the groups said it was complying with the information requests and that its work complies with federal, state and local guidelines.

The information requests included in the news release were all sent Nov. 22, more than three weeks ago. Those requests are part of an ongoing investigation by Paxton into the Texas Bar Foundation for “facilitating mass influx of illegal aliens” by donating money to groups that “encourage, participate in, and fund illegal immigration at the Texas-Mexico border.”

The foundation’s leadership has denied wrongdoing and said it is cooperating with Paxton’s investigation.

Paxton began his investigation into the foundation the same day the Texas State Bar told him it planned to sue him for professional misconduct after a disciplinary board determined he had filed a frivolous lawsuit that tried to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election in four swing states to benefit then-President Donald Trump, his ally.

The foundation is made up of attorneys and raises money to provide legal education and services. It is separate from the State Bar of Texas, which is an administrative arm of the Texas Supreme Court.

On Wednesday, the chair of the Texas Bar Foundation said in a statement that “there is no merit to the Attorney General’s accusations.”

“We have reviewed the grants that were submitted by the three organizations from which the Attorney General is now seeking information (copies of which were previously produced to the Attorney General’s office) and they were all appropriately funded by the Foundation,” said Alistair Dawson, a Houston trial lawyer who serves as the foundation’s chair. “These grants were consistent with our mission statement and were not for the purpose of ‘aiding and abetting the invasion of illegal aliens’ as AG Paxton alleges.”

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