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Texas AG Ken Paxton sues Catholic migrant aid organization for alleged 'human smuggling'

EL PASO, Texas – Every day, Ruben Garcia's cellphone dings with text messages from U.S. Border Patrol.

With each text, agents tell Garcia how many migrants will be lawfully released and need a meal, a shower or a place to sleep. The executive director of the nonprofit Annunciation House – a Catholic evangelist who once brought Mother Teresa to the Texas border – has specialized in meeting those needs for more than 40 years through a network of faith-based shelters. He calls the work "hospitality."

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton now alleges it's "human smuggling."

In a new lawsuit, Paxton claims the Annunciation House "appears to be engaged in the business of human smuggling," charges its shelter network amounts to “an illegal stash house” and is threatening to terminate the nonprofit’s right to operate in Texas.

Annunciation House director Ruben García speaks at a roundtable discussion with officials from the City of El Paso, local non-profits, law enforcement officials, businesses and other stakeholders at the Emergency Migrant Operations Facility located in the recently shuttered Bassett Middle School in El Paso, Texas, on Monday, Jan 9, 2023.
Annunciation House director Ruben García speaks at a roundtable discussion with officials from the City of El Paso, local non-profits, law enforcement officials, businesses and other stakeholders at the Emergency Migrant Operations Facility located in the recently shuttered Bassett Middle School in El Paso, Texas, on Monday, Jan 9, 2023.

Experts say the litigation against a Catholic migrant aid organization is a serious expansion of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s sprawling crackdown on immigration and border communities. Should the state prevail, it could have wide-ranging implications for churches, hospitals and other organizations that provide humanitarian assistance.

"We are now witnessing an escalating campaign of intimidation, fear and dehumanization in the state of Texas," said Bishop Mark Seitz of the Catholic Diocese of El Paso. The city's identity as "a place of welcome and dignity" is at stake, he said.

A network of faith-based migrant shelters

Annunciation House isn't a place, per se. It's a community of like-minded people, driven by their faith to help the most vulnerable regardless of circumstance. Depending on the year, Garcia's network of faith-based shelters stretches from Dallas to Denver, from Albuquerque to southern New Mexico.

The shelters are staffed largely by volunteers, including college students and retired seniors. Two of the El Paso shelters serve as convalescent homes for migrants who have been severely injured on their journey, including those who have fallen from the 30-foot border fence.

Churches open their doors to migrants when they can, and Garcia tries to ensure that every migrant processed and lawfully released by Border Patrol in El Paso has somewhere to go – a task that has gotten harder as the number of migrants arriving at the border has risen in recent years.

But his work has been rendered newly political as Texas' elected leaders – and national politics – veer further to the right on immigration.

Paxton said in a statement this week that organizations assisting migrants are “responsible for worsening illegal immigration.”

“The chaos at the southern border has created an environment where NGOs, funded with taxpayer money from the Biden Administration, facilitate astonishing horrors including human smuggling,” he said.

More: So many deaths, not enough ways to track them: Migrant deaths surge at US-Mexico border

Pete Hermansen, a former Border Patrol agent-in-charge who also directed the agency's national special operations, said he witnessed "both sides of it" during his 21-year career in the agency.

"I saw organizations that crossed the line and organizations that were there to help people," he said. "Regardless of how provocative Texas is getting, Texas is sharing with the nation the pain of this immigration problem so there is visibility to it."

Border Patrol’s daily calls and text messages to Garcia’s cellphone each day have come during successive presidential administrations – Obama's, Trump's, Biden's – as the make-up of migrants arriving at the border has shifted from individuals sneaking into the country to look for work, to families with children asking for asylum at the border

Agents who process asylum-seekers and other migrants have often prioritized keeping them off the street once released. In El Paso, that means texting Garcia and sending migrants to an Annunciation House shelter instead of a street corner.

"Faith-based organizations have been picking up the pieces of a broken system for decades," said Dylan Corbett, executive director of the Hope Border Institute, another El Paso-based Catholic migrant aid group. Paxton's lawsuit "is designed for political effect and also to have a chilling effect."

Annunciation House attorney Jerry Wesevich said Paxton's litigation is "a gimmick lawsuit to try to shut down" the nonprofit.

“You have a bunch of church ladies trying to help people,” Wesevich said. “Annunciation House is not an immigration outfit. It doesn’t decide who is in the country legally or illegally.”

Texas pursues border crackdown in the courts

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has sought to clamp down on migration at the Texas border through his Operation Lone Star and the office of his attorney general.

Since 2021, Abbott has deployed hundreds of Texas National Guard troops to the Mexican border, installed reams of razor wire along the Rio Grande and bused more than 100,000 migrants to Democrat-led cities around the country at a cost of roughly $10 billion. He recently announced plans to build a military facility to house 2,300 troops at the borderline.

Paxton has pursued the governor's border crackdown through the courts.

He has sued to force the Biden administration to continue building a barrier along the 2,000-mile border and defended Abbott's placement of a buoy barrier in the Rio Grande after the Department of Justice sued. He has filed more than 20 lawsuits against the Biden administration, including many targeting the administration's immigration policies, according to a count by the Texas Tribune.

On Feb. 7, Paxton's office ordered Annunciation House via email to provide "immediate access" to the nonprofit's records, including "all logs" identifying the migrants it has served, according to court documents. Annunciation House sued in Texas 205th District Court, asking a judge to review which of its records must be turned over by law.

"The AG threatened criminal sanctions and forfeiture of (Annunciation House's) right to do business in Texas if the AG, in his sole discretion, decides that (Annunciation House) has not complied, the nonprofit stated in its lawsuit filed Feb. 8.

Paxton counter-sued on Feb. 20 to revoke Annunciation House's registration to operate in Texas.

"All we want is a court ruling," Wesevich said.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Texas targets Catholic migrant shelter for alleged 'human smuggling'