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El Paso judge says he’s concerned that Ken Paxton has “ulterior political motives”’ in migrant shelter probe

By Uriel J. García, The Texas Tribune

El Paso judge says he’s concerned that Ken Paxton has “ulterior political motives”’ in migrant shelter probe” 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 — A state judge admonished a lawyer for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton during a court hearing Thursday, saying that he is worried that the state’s investigation into an El Paso migrant shelter may be politically motivated.

District Court Judge Francisco Dominguez of El Paso made his comments during a hearing on whether Annunciation House, a network of migrant shelters, has to hand over documents the attorney general has demanded. Dominguez interrupted Ryan Baasch, a Texas assistant attorney general, during his closing arguments to dispute the state’s characterization of its investigation.

Baasch said the case has unnecessarily escalated and the documents the state has asked for are “innocuous material.” He said state officials have offered to negotiate with Annunciation House.

“This is the part where you’re starting to offend my intelligence. You did not offer to negotiate. You did not offer to act in good faith,” Dominguez interrupted Baasch from the bench.

Dominguez continued by saying that Paxton’s office was “rude and unprofessional” when it made its demands for Annunciation House’s documents. He said that from “day one all I’ve heard is a willingness to comply” from Annuncaition House “so that everyone’s interests are protected.

“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 added.

Baasch responded by saying the state’s request for the documents “may seem to impose a significant burden” on Annunciation House but that state law requires a quick response.

Dominguez said that he would make a ruling on whether Annunciation House has to release the specific records the state is asking for as soon as possible.

In early February, Paxton’s office sent three lawyers to Annunciation House, seeking records about the shelter’s clients and gave the shelter director, Ruben Garcia, a day to turn over the documents. When Garcia’s lawyer, Jerome Wesevich, responded that it 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.

In court documents, the attorney general’s office has 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.

Wesevich told Dominguez during the hearing that Garcia has already turned over 200 pages of documents but that the state’s request is “an abuse of power to try to stop Annunciation House from doing business.”

Among the documents the state is seeking are logs of the names of people the shelter has provided services to, a grant application the shelter has filed with the federal government, material it has provided to migrants and a list of all the shelters Garcia operates.

Garcia said during the court hearing that he is willing to comply with the attorney general’s request but wants a judge to decide which documents he is legally obligated to release. He said he is hesitant to release all the documents the state is asking for because it includes sensitive information such as medical records and the identifying information of migrants who have told them are fleeing people trying to harm them.

During questioning, Baasch asked Garcia if he was aware of the killing of 22-year-old Laken Hope Riley, an Augusta University nursing student in Georgia. Baasch also asked Garcia if he knew that the suspected killer, 26-year-old Jose Antonio Ibarra — a Venezulan who immigration officials said entered the country near El Paso in September 2022 — had stayed at an Annunciation House shelter.

Garcia said he is aware of the case but doesn’t know if Ibarra may have stayed at one of his shelters.

The Attorney General’s Office didn’t respond to an email from The Texas Tribune seeking additional information about any links between the Georgia murder and Annunciation House.

After the court hearing, Garcia said he lost a son to cancer and feels heartache for Riley’s family. But he said he finds it sad whenever someone implies that all “refugees are the same.”

“If you take one individual from any demographic group and then try to paint the entire group as a result of the behavior of that one individual, [that’s] unconscionable,” Garcia said to reporters after the hearing.

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.

Annunciation House operates several shelters in El Paso, helping immigrants and refugees obtain food and housing, and providing information on how to complete legal documents to claim asylum in the United States.

The nonprofit, which opened its first shelter at a local Catholic Church nearly 50 years ago and receives support from the church, said it has helped hundreds of thousands of refugees who have come through El Paso by feeding and keeping them off city streets.

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