Catholic migrant shelter battles Texas AG, who wants to shut it down

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Texas’ attorney general wants to shut down a faith-based group that has sheltered migrants for decades, escalating conservatives’ targeting of Catholic organizations and amping up the state’s own immigration enforcement operation.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, has sued to revoke the license to operate of Annunciation House in the border city of El Paso, after a judge sided with the nonprofit and allowed it 14 days to respond to a demand for records by Paxton. Paxton’s office requested among other things logs identifying people to whom the organization has provided services.

Paxton’s office said in a statement Tuesday that public records it has reviewed suggest the organization has been helping undocumented people enter the country, among other things.

But Jerome Wesevich, the Texas RioGrande Legal Aid attorney representing Annunciation House, said Paxton’s lawsuit to shut down Annunciation House and its shelters has never been about obtaining documents.

“What they wanted was a pretext to shut us down,” Wesevich told NBC News.

A new Texas law that enhances penalties for the smuggling of people across the border went into effect on Feb. 6 “and they were at our door Feb. 7,” Wesevich said. “That smells.”

The new law is one of several Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed last year. It drives up minimum penalties for human smuggling or operating a stash house.

Annunciation House, which operates several shelters in El Paso and across the border in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, first filed suit when the attorney general’s office issued an administrative subpoena. The group asked for 30 days to respond, according to Wesevich, but Paxton’s office said it must respond that day or face shutdown.

Wesevich said there was no negotiation when he asked for more time, “just a rude email response that said you must comply in one day.”

In addition to time to gather the documents, Annunciation House needed to determine what it could legally release to the state, Wesevich said.

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Migrants arrive at Annunciation House to be cared for after being released by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, in El Paso, Texas, on Jan. 14, 2019.Joe Raedle / Getty Images file

Annunciation House, founded and run by Ruben Garcia since 1978, has been providing shelter for migrants and refugees for decades.

The organization has worked with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection in this and at least the previous two administrations to house people whom the agencies have processed and released, who often have been permitted into the country while they await hearings.

Wesevich said people already processed and released by immigration authorities are whom Annunciation House is sheltering almost exclusively these days because of how the system of dealing with migrants is set up in El Paso. Many turn themselves over to immigration authorities and request asylum.

“There is enormous community support for this. It’s a social service organization and if they are somehow doing terrible things, there is not a food bank or school or medical facility that does not do this work,” Wesevich said.

“They don’t make decisions on who to give food to based on whether they are documented or undocumented. The work we do is not distinguishable from other organizations including schools. Schools know they have undocumented kids and they do not kick those kids out,” he said.

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Bee Moorhead, executive director of the faith-based coalition Texas Impact, said the dispute over the records should be a procedural discussion because the attorney general’s office asks for records of many businesses and nonprofits regularly that lead to agreements on providing time to supply them.

“The attorney general would know that by taking this combative approach, it would gin up a lot of emotion,” said Moorhead, whose group warned Texas legislators last year about the impact of the anti-smuggling laws on faith-based groups.

The AG’s office cited a 2023 article published by El Paso Matters, a nonprofit news site, to back its accusations. In the article, the news site paraphrases Garcia, saying his organization was housing 300 migrants at the time, including many who had not been processed by immigration officials and feared deportation if they turned themselves in and requested asylum. The article explains that Annunciation House is holding workshops on how to apply and eligibility requirements.

Paxton’s office said in the Tuesday statement that it has “complete and unlimited authority to examine business records” and “the consequence of a flagrant failure to comply … is that OAG may terminate the business’s right to operate in Texas.”

NBC News reached out to Paxton’s office for further comment.

Paxton, who’s been in the news after he lost his bid last week to have a securities fraud case against him dismissed (he’s pleaded not guilty and is scheduled to stand trial on the charges), has been critical of President Joe Biden’s immigration policies and said nonprofits that receive funding from the administration “facilitate astonishing horrors including human smuggling.”

“While the federal government perpetuates the lawlessness destroying this country, my office works day in and day out to hold these organizations responsible for worsening illegal immigration,” Paxton said in the Tuesday statement.

Annunciation House says on its website it doesn’t have permanent funding sources. It is mostly sustained by “spontaneous and free contributions of individuals, groups and faith communities.” Wesevich said the group is reviewing its funding documents to respond to Paxton and Annunciation House may have received federal emergency grant money to help deal with increased arrivals.

Catholic groups have found themselves the target of some Republican lawmakers as the immigration debate has taken center stage this presidential election cycle.

The conservative nonprofit CatholicVote has sought to obtain communication records between the Biden administration and Catholic groups in Texas on the belief that they may have helped drive up immigration, according to a 2022 article from the National Catholic Reporter.

Some Republican lawmakers have been trying to slash money the federal government provides Catholic and other faith-based groups to assist migrants.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Catholic charities have played a role for decades in helping resettle migrants and refugees in the United States, most notably Cubans who fled the Castro regime.

Annunciation House has been part of that work for more than 46 years and is recognized by the Catholic Church, it said in a statement Tuesday.

“Annunciation House has done this work of accompaniment out of the scriptural and Gospel mandate to welcome the stranger,” Annunciation House said in the statement.

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