Texas keeps up its crusade against migrant shelters

Under the direction of Republican Governor Greg Abbott, the state has intensified efforts to criminalize all support for immigrants and tried to shut down shelters such as Annunciation House in El Paso

Texas migrant shelters
Migrants sleeping outside the Sacred Heart Church in El Paso, Texas, in May 2023.Andres Leighton (AP)

Harassment at the Mexico-Texas border not only affects migrants seeking to cross into the United States, but also those who help them and offer them food, clothing and a place to sleep. Under Republican Governor Greg Abbott, Texas has intensified efforts to criminalize all support for migrants. And its controversial attorney general, Ken Paxton, has launched a crackdown on shelters, mostly Catholic, with the goal of closing them down.

In a recent case, Paxton requested the closure of Annunciation House, a shelter run by a Catholic nonprofit that has been aiding migrants for decades on the border in El Paso, Texas. The shelter network has been key to reuniting families with children separated at the border and receiving sick or seriously injured asylum seekers, such as survivors of the fire at the Ciudad Juárez detention center where 40 men died in 2023.

The attorney general has accused the nonprofit of operating a stash house for migrants and, in February, tried to force it to hand over all its records in less than 24 hours, including the names of the people it helped, dates of birth, medical history, medications, and the names of their relatives. But after back-and-forth hearings, on July 2, 205th District Judge Francisco X. Domínguez denied Paxton’s request, saying it was politically motivated and just an excuse to justify harassment of nonprofit workers and people seeking shelter.

The Reverend Mike Gallagher explains to migrants the conditions they need to meet to request asylum, in El Paso (Texas), in May 2023.
The Reverend Mike Gallagher explains to migrants the conditions they need to meet to request asylum, in El Paso (Texas), in May 2023.Giovanna Dell'Orto (AP)

“It’s not surprising that the court ruled in favor of us on all grounds,” said Jerome Wesevich of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, who represents the shelter network. “There is no legal basis to close a non-profit organization that provides social services to refugees. And that’s it.”

Annunciation House opened its doors in 1978 at the initiative of a group of young Catholics in their twenties. Rubén García, now 75, was one of them, and he is currently the general director of the organization. In almost 50 years, the institution has offered food, shelter, clothing and legal advice to approximately 500,000 migrants, according to its records. It houses people with short and medium-term needs, it can be a home for weeks or months for people who came to the United States in search of work, people who fled violence and extortion in their countries of origin, or undocumented families who already live in El Paso and are going through economic hardship.

“If the work Annunciation House does is illegal, so is the work of our local hospitals, schools and food banks,” Garcia said in response to Paxton’s accusation. “The attorney general’s illegal, immoral and anti-religious position to close Annunciation House is baseless.” García has alluded to the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which say a government agency may not substantially burden a person’s free exercise of religion and that, if it does so, it must use the “least restrictive means” to ensure compliance. In fact, Judge Domínguez in his ruling argued that closing the shelter would violate this legislation.

“We find ourselves in an impossible position, cornered on all sides,” said El Paso Diocese Bishop Mark J. Seitz. “On the one hand, we face the challenge of serious federal negligence in providing a safe, orderly and humane response to migration at our southern border. On the other hand, we are witnessing a growing campaign of intimidation, fear and dehumanization in the State of Texas, characterized by barbed wire.”

The organization works with volunteers. One shelter is for long stays, for people who are going through permanent needs, such as political asylum cases, medical difficulties or immigration procedures, and for temporary stays for widows of U.S. citizens who must spend a certain amount of time in the United States to collect the Social Security benefits to which they are entitled. Another shelter houses mostly people released from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers and who have permission to travel within the country. One more is for the offices, and another one in Ciudad Juárez is where some of their volunteers have their living quarters.

“We will not be intimidated in our work,” said Bishop Seitz, known for his advocacy for migrants on the U.S.-Mexico border.

A case that is not isolated

Since February, Paxton has been sending letters to other nonprofit organizations that help refugees and migrants in Texas, according to the AP agency. Angeles Sin Fronteras in Mission, Team Brownsville and Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley are some of the organizations that have received requests for documents.

Catholic Charities opened a shelter in Brownsville in 2017 and currently receives an average of about 1,000 people a week. According to court documents in AP’s possession, the organization, which is owned by the local diocese, said that it provided over 100 pages of documents to Paxton’s office and a sworn statement from its executive director. In June, Paxton asked a court to allow the state to depose a member of the organization about intake procedures, communication with local and state law enforcement, and the organization’s “practices for facilitating alien crossings over the Texas-Mexico border.” The nonprofit asked a judge to deny Paxton’s request.

The attorney general’s office represents the state in legal matters and Paxton has been in office since 2015. He is an ally of former President Donald Trump and shares his anti-rights ideas. As an AG he has litigated against the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, pregnancy termination, treatments for trans children, and the elimination of Title 42 at the border. The FBI is investigating him over accusations of public corruption. In late September 2023, the local news organization Texas Tribune revealed that Paxton had fled his home in McKinney, north of the city of Dallas, to avoid being served a subpoena for a hearing in federal court.

Migrantes Venezuela
Migrants going over barbed wire after crossing the Rio Grande at Eagle Pass, Texas, on September 26, 2023.BRIAN SNYDER (REUTERS)

Drastic measures against undocumented migrants by Governor Abbott have also been constant: the numerous transfers of migrants by bus to other states, the deployment of the Texas National Guard on the border, the cooperation with both U.S. and Mexican authorities to lay barbed wire and the use of other tactics to prevent crossings. And there is also the enactment of harsh laws like SB4, which allows Texas police to arrest people for illegally crossing the Mexico border but is currently on hold in an appeals court to review its constitutionality.

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