In ‘Massive Escalation’, Texas Sues to Shut Down Faith-Based Shelter for Helping Migrants

“If the work that Annunciation House conducts is illegal—so too is the work of our local hospitals, schools, and food banks,” said the nonprofit organization.

By Julia Conley. Published 2-21-2024 by Common Dreams

Annunciation House volunteers calling upon local and national leaders to welcome asylum-seekers with dignity. Photo: Annunciation House/Facebook

A faith-based migrant aid organization that’s operated in El Paso, Texas for nearly five decades said Wednesday that Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton ordered it to turn over documents about its work earlier this month—but that a lawsuit filed by Paxton has now made clear that his true goal is to shut down the group’s network of shelters.

Annunciation House, which provides food and housing for refugees and undocumented immigrants, received an order from the Consumer Protection Division of Paxton’s office on February 7, demanding that it turn over documents including legal service referrals, identifying information about asylum-seekers and migrants the group helped, and applications for federal funding. The organization was given one day to turn over the documents, and Paxton provided no explanation for the demand.

A request for an extension was denied by the state, and Annunciation House asked a court for a restraining order to grant it more time, as well as requesting that the court rule on which documents it had to hand over.

On Tuesday, Paxton announced he was suing Annunciation House, saying that given the group’s “flagrant failure” to turn over the documents, his office “may terminate the business’s right to operate in Texas.”

“The [Office of the Attorney General] lawsuit seeks to revoke Annunciation House’s authorization to do business in Texas and asks the court to appoint a receiver to liquidate their assets,” said Paxton.

Annunciation House said that Paxton’s statement made clear that his “real goal is not records but to shut down the organization,” adding that the attorney general’s office “has stated that it considers it a crime for a Catholic organization to provide shelter to refugees.”

The group noted that “there is nothing illegal about asking a court to decide a person’s rights,” as it did following the February 7 request, and pointed out that public services across the country also provide aid to migrants and refugees.

“The attorney general’s illegal, immoral and anti-faith position to shut down Annunciation House is unfounded,” said the group. “Annunciation House has provided hospitality to hundreds of thousands of refugees for over 46 years… 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.”

“If the work that Annunciation House conducts is illegal—so too is the work of our local hospitals, schools, and food banks,” said the group.

Despite the organization’s well-established record of helping to ensure refugees have temporary housing—work that it said “helps serve our local businesses, our city, and immigration officials” as well as Annunciation House’s guests themselves, Paxton suggested the group’s officials are “worsening illegal immigration” and facilitating human smuggling.

“The Office of the Attorney General (OAG) reviewed significant public record information strongly suggesting Annunciation House is engaged in legal violations such as facilitating illegal entry to the United States, alien harboring, human smuggling, and operating a stash house,” Paxton claimed.

Jerome Wesevich, a lawyer with Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, which is representing Annunciation House, expressed shock at the “aggressive” tone of Paxton’s rhetoric about the nonprofit.

“These are church ladies,” Wesevich toldThe Texas Tribune of the volunteers who help run Annunciation House’s shelters. “He’s using documents as an excuse to shut down a religious organization he doesn’t agree with.”

Paxton’s lawsuit and threat to shut down the group follow the Texas government’s attempt to circumvent federal immigration law by erecting a razor wire fence to keep migrants from crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. The state government has accused the Biden administration of perpetuating chaos and “lawlessness” at the border.

Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy director of the American Immigration Council, called Paxton’s lawsuit “a massive escalation in Texas’ war on the federal government and on people of faith who feel called by God to support the stranger.”

“There are people of faith around the country, who believe that they are putting the teachings of the Bible (or other religious books) practice by providing services to migrants,” said Reichlin-Melnick. “Paxton’s lawsuit should send a shiver down the spine of every faith-based nonprofit in the state.”

Before shelters like Annunciation House began working in conjunction with the federal government in 2020, he added, the Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement “would just dump migrants off at the bus station after they were released from custody. It was a chaotic mess.”

“I was in El Paso in 2018 and at Annunciation House itself, and saw the Border Patrol dropping off migrants there to ensure they had a place to sleep for the night,” he added. “If even [the Department of Homeland Security] under the Trump administration thought they were a valuable partner, that tells you how far off base Paxton is.”

A hearing on both Annunciation House’s request for clarification about what documents it needs to turn over and about Paxton’s call for Texas to revoke the nonprofit’s registration in the state is set to take place “at some point before March 7,” Wesevich toldThe Texas Tribune.

“Within a badly broken immigration system, the humanitarian assistance provided by Annunciation House is one of the few things that works well,” said former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat. “We in El Paso stand with the faith leaders and volunteers who lead this work and make us proud to call this border community our home.”

This work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0).

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