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Ken Paxton’s Annunciation House investigation is the latest attack on religious organizations aiding migrants at the border

By Uriel J. García and William Melhado, The Texas Tribune

Ken Paxton’s Annunciation House investigation is the latest attack on religious organizations aiding migrants at the border” 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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EL PASO — Before Annunciation House Director Ruben Garcia received a demand from the Texas Attorney General’s office to hand over sensitive documents about the migrants who have stayed at his shelter, the state had been monitoring Garcia’s and other staffers’ activity.

In court documents, Anthony Carter, a criminal investigator with Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office, described Garcia dropping off groceries in a white Toyota truck and noted “several Hispanic individuals from adults to small children seen entering and leaving” one of the El Paso shelter network’s facilities. Carter noted that only three people had keys to the shelter, while everyone else had to ring a doorbell.

Rob Farquharson, an assistant attorney general in Paxton’s office, said in the same court documents that what Carter observed showed that the shelter had an “unusually covert way” of operating. He said Annunciation House appears “to be engaged in the business of human smuggling,” operating an “illegal stash house” and encouraging immigrants to enter the country illegally because it provides education on legal services. (Garcia’s lawyer said that’s just how migrant shelters operate, for the safety of guests and staff).

“When we first read it, we thought it was creepy,” said Jerome Wesevich, a lawyer with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid who is representing Annunciation House in its legal fight with Paxton. “I don’t know if I would call it spying, but if they would have just asked us, we would have talked to them.”

Earlier this month, Paxton’s office sent lawyers to Annunciation House, seeking records about the shelter’s clients and gave Garcia a day to turn over the documents. When Wesevich said that wasn’t enough time and asked a judge to determine which documents shelter officials are legally allowed to release, the AG’s office interpreted the delay as noncompliance and filed a countersuit to shut down the shelter network.

For the past few years, right-wing advocacy groups and Republican lawmakers have targeted non-governmental organizations that shelter migrants, many of them asylum seekers, blaming them for incentivizing illegal immigration with taxpayer money.

Those efforts come as religious figures, emboldened by the rise of Christian nationalism, continue to demonize migrants and those who aid them as part of a broader scheme to dilute the American electorate. On Sunday, Ed Young, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention and the longtime pastor of Houston’s massive Second Baptist Church, gave a lengthy sermon in which he reportedly called migrants “garbage” and “undesirables” who are being brought in to support a “progressive, Godless” dictatorship.

“We will not be able to stand under all the garbage and raff in which we’re now inviting to come into our shores,” said Young, whose church has been attended for years by prominent state Republicans. “And they’re already here.”

Far-right Catholics have also mobilized against organizations such as Catholic Charities, calling it the “enemy of the people” and blasting it for assisting migrants — many of whom are also Catholic, but conflict with the ethno-nationalism that experts say is highly correlated with white Christian nationalist beliefs.

Last year, right-wing Catholics launched a campaign to defund bishops who aid migrants at the border; and in an interview with the group Church Militant, self-professed Christian nationalist and U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Georgia, said Catholic Charities’ work was proof of “Satan controlling the church.”

And some Texas politicians have targeted faith-based groups like Annunciation House — which has been in operation for nearly 50 years — with accusations that such shelters encourage, and profit from, illegal immigration.

Paxton’s move comes as immigration has become one of the main issues in this year’s presidential elections and Texas has dramatically ramped up its efforts to deter people crossing the Rio Grande.

Last year, Garcia expressed concern that Gov. Greg Abbott’s escalating efforts to halt illegal immigration could impact the work of Good Samaritans.

“The church is at risk because the volunteers are asking themselves, ‘If I feed someone who’s unprocessed, if I give someone a blanket who’s unprocessed, if I help them get off the street, am I liable to be prosecuted for that?’” Garcia said during a public meeting with U.S. senators visiting El Paso. “Shame on us, that on this day, this is even being brought up in the United States.”

On Friday, Garcia said Paxton’s move is the first time a state official has actually taken action to stop the work he and his staff have done to help migrants. He said that he is “concerned about the language that is used” by some politicians to describe the work his organization and others are doing with migrants because it can “encourage people to do terrible things to organizations and to people who are trying to provide basic human services to individuals.”

A 2017 court ruling reinforced the idea that migrant shelters can’t be charged with crimes related to helping migrants. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund sued Texas in 2016 over House Bill 11, a state law with a provision that says people commit a crime if they “encourage or induce a person to enter or remain in this country in violation of federal law by concealing, harboring, or shielding that person from detection.”

The following year the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in the state’s favor but said organizations that provide services to immigrants aren’t at risk of prosecution under the law, “Because there is no reasonable interpretation by which merely renting housing or providing social services to an illegal alien constitutes harboring . . . that person from detection.”

Steve McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, said in court documents at the time that his agency “would not investigate, file criminal charges, or otherwise engage in enforcement activity” under this state law against non-governmental organizations that provide aid to migrants.

U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, said Paxton’s move is “absolutely terrifying and should send a chill down the back” of people who care about immigrants’ rights and the groups that help them. She said that “extreme far-right members” in Congress have worked to defund organizations that help migrants.

“This is a wake up call for the country that this far-right extremism knows no bounds. And I assure you that what has happened to Annunciation House will be a pattern that will be executed on every nonprofit, every local government, every organization that offers care to anyone who might be undocumented, or someone who is an immigrant and an asylum seeker in this country.”

Two years ago, U.S. Rep. Lance Gooden, R-Terrell, sent Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley and two similar faith-based organizations a lengthy demand for information about migrants and the services they provide to them — not unlike the demand Paxton’s office sent to Annunciation House.

He threatened the organizations with congressional subpoenas if they didn’t comply, but two years later, Gooden said Catholic Charities has not responded to his demand.

“They know that what they’re doing is so politically disgusting to the average American that the outrage would really increase if they cooperated with any oversight investigation by Congress,” Gooden said of Catholic Charities.

Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley in McAllen, said the alarmist rhetoric Gooden and others are spreading about the border and her work is politically motivated.

“I wish they would come and actually see what we’re doing so they can understand what is actually happening at the border,” Pimentel said. “We respond to what our own faith calls us to do, to take care of our brothers and sisters who are hurting, who are suffering.”

In a May 2023 letter to DHS Secretary Mayorkas, Gooden wrote that NGOs receive hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars through federal grants to provide lodging and transportation for migrants “to be released anywhere they want in the United States.” Gooden added that groups like Catholic Charities stood to financially benefit from more illegal crossings because then the federal government would provide more money to fund their facilities and services.

Pimentel disputed this characterization. She said in addition to helping house and feed migrants, Catholic Charities also serves families in four counties in the Rio Grande Valley.

Gooden’s scrutiny of Catholic Charities came at the same time as right-wing groups, like the Deposit of Faith Coalition and Alliance for a Safe Texas, were also targeting the faith-based group. The Deposit of Faith Coalition, a group of conservative Catholic organizations critical of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ stance on a number of issues from immigration to climate change, has labeled Catholic Charities an “enemy of the people,” and accused the organization of profiting off the federal assistance they use to provide shelter and food to those in need.

Pimentel said those are false accusations “based on just political rhetoric … to create a problem or a crisis so that the [Biden] administration looks bad.”

Last week, after Paxton’s investigation into Annunciation House became public, the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops released a statement “expressing solidarity with ministry volunteers and people of faith who seek only to serve vulnerable migrants as our nation and state continue to pursue failed migration and border security policies.”

On Monday, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement of support for Texas Catholics and other people of faith helping to “meet migrants’ basic human needs.”

Garcia said that he wants people to recognize that what’s at stake is the well-being of human beings.

“That should cause all of us to pause, take a step back and to ask ourselves, ‘How do we behave?” he said. “How do we respond when human beings are involved?”

Robert Downen contributed to this story.


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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/02/29/texas-border-shelters-ken-paxton-annunciation-house-catholic-charities/.

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