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Ken Paxton sues to revoke an El Paso nonprofit’s state registration after it didn’t immediately hand over client records

By William Melhado, The Texas Tribune

Ken Paxton sues to revoke an El Paso nonprofit’s state registration after it didn’t immediately hand over client records” 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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A Catholic nonprofit that operates several shelters in El Paso sued the Office of the Attorney General earlier this month to delay the release of records after the state agency demanded the immediate release of extensive documentation about the immigrant clients that it serves along the border.

The Consumer Protection Division of the attorney general’s office launched an investigation into Annunciation House on Feb. 7, demanding the release of documentation within one day, the small nonprofit requested an extension to review what information the organization was legally required to turn over.

The state denied the extension, so the Catholic nonprofit sued the state, requesting a court rule on which documents the group must hand over to the attorney general. Additionally, to buy time, Annunciation House also requested a restraining order against the attorney general to grant the Catholic organization relief from the state’s immediate demands.

In turn, Attorney General Ken Paxton announced his office was suing the organization for failing to comply with the demand and suggested the religious nonprofit of “worsening illegal immigration.” If a judge sides with the state, the lawsuit could prevent the group from operating in Texas, which it’s done since 1976.

“He’s using documents as an excuse to shut down a religious organization he doesn’t agree with,” Jerome Wesevich, a lawyer with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid representing Annunciation House, said of Paxton.

In a Tuesday evening statement, Paxton accused Annunciation House of a series of offenses, which included smuggling people across the southern border and operating a stash house.

“The chaos at the southern border has created an environment where NGOs, funded with taxpayer money from the Biden Administration, facilitate astonishing horrors including human smuggling,” Paxton said.

Wesevich said Paxton obviously disagrees with the services Annunciation House provides, which include providing shelter to refugees, but he doesn’t understand why so much bluster is necessary.

“The tone of the papers he filed is so aggressive, these are church ladies,” Wesevich said.

Emails between the Office of the Attorney General and Wesevich included in court filings revealed the urgency in which the state was seeking documents.

“Although the statute entitles us to immediate access, we nevertheless gave your client time today to consult internally and with its attorneys regarding our Request to Examine,” Levi Fuller, an assistant attorney general, wrote to Wesevich at the end of the business day on Feb. 7. “Unless your client provides us access to the specified records in its possession by tomorrow, February 8, we will deem it to be in non-compliance.”

For nearly half a century, Annunciation House has operated several shelters in El Paso, assisting immigrants and refugees who are experiencing homelessness with various needs including housing and providing information on how to complete legal documents needed to claim asylum in the United States. The group said it has helped hundreds of thousands of refugees who have come through El Paso by giving them food and keeping them off city streets.

“The Attorney General’s illegal, immoral and anti-faith position to shut down Annunciation House is unfounded,” Ruben Garcia, the director of Annunciation House, said in a statement. “If the work that Annunciation House conducts is illegal – so too is the work of our local hospitals, schools, and food banks.”

In court filings from last week, the state argued that because Annunciation House did not comply with the state’s demand for documents, the court should revoke the nonprofit’s Texas registration.

Included in the attorney general’s filing was a copy of an El Paso Matters story from January that reported on Annunciation House’s efforts to help new immigrants apply for asylum. Additionally, the filing included two sworn affidavits from Anthony Carter and William Taylor, two investigators with the Office of the Attorney General, outlining conversations they had with staff at Annunciation House and how the organization helps guests.

The administrative subpoena sent to Annunciation House demanded some of the organization’s documents from January 2022 until this month. The documents included referrals made on behalf of the group to legal service; identifying information about people who have received services from Annunciation House; and all applications with the Emergency Food and Shelter Program, which provides federal funding for organizations providing services to address hunger and homelessness.

Paxton’s office has repeatedly sued the Biden administration over its immigration policies, characterizing them as open border policies. Some of those legal cases have gone to the conservative-majority U.S. Supreme Court, which has ruled in favor of the Biden administration, reaffirming decades-long precedent that the federal government has sole authority over immigration laws.

A hearing on both of the matters — the request for clarification of the administrative subpoena and the request to revoke Annunciation House’s Texas registration — will take place at some point before March 7 in the 205th Judicial District Court in El Paso, Wesevich said.

Uriel García contributed to this story.

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