Texas judge blocks Attorney General Ken Paxton’s decision to close migrant shelter

A Texas district court judge on Tuesday blocked Texas’ attempt to close a decades-old network of migrant shelters near the U.S.-Mexico border, calling the actions of Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton “outrageous and unacceptable.”

Paxton earlier this year demanded that Annunciation House, which operates several shelters for migrants and refugees, turn over documents identifying the people it houses. The nonprofit filed a lawsuit asking a judge to rule on the request; the attorney general responded with a countersuit seeking the closure of the shelters and accusing the nonprofit of violating smuggling laws.

Judge Francisco X. Dominguez of the 205th District Court shot down the effort in a pair of rulings, writing that Paxton’s claims were without merit and that his request for documents violated the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches. Thus, his ruling was null and unenforceable.

“The Texas Attorney General’s use of the request to examine Annunciation House records was a pretext to justify the harassment of Annunciation House employees and asylum seekers,” wrote Dominguez, a Democrat who was elected to the judgeship in 2014. In seeking the asylum records, the attorney general was fishing for “evidence of alleged criminal activity” all along, the judge wrote, adding: “This is outrageous and intolerable.”

The attorney general’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment; it is unclear whether the office will appeal. Paxton has argued that Annunciation’s sites operate as a “criminal enterprise” designed to “facilitate illegal border crossings” and “conceal illegally present aliens from law enforcement.”

Any organization that “facilitates the illegal entry of illegal aliens into Texas undermines the rule of law and potentially endangers the safety and well-being of our citizens,” Paxton said in a statement in March.

Annunciation House is a faith-based network of shelters headquartered in El Paso that has sheltered thousands of undocumented immigrants for nearly five decades. Working with U.S. immigration officials, the shelters provide migrants with food, clothing and a first home in the United States. Its leader, Ruben Garcia, sees the work as a religious calling — to help the most vulnerable, no matter how they got here.

But as Texas Governor Greg Abbott said (R) has cracked down on illegal immigration, state investigators have raised questions about the organization and alleged in court filings that its shelters are “stash houses” that protect undocumented immigrants from authorities. Meanwhile, the shelter network has won praise from the highest echelons of the Catholic Church, with Pope Francis in May denouncing the investigation into the organization as “madness.”

In a statement in May, Paxton alleged that the network of shelters engaged in what he described as “systematic criminal conduct” and said his office had obtained “sworn testimony” showing that “Annunciation House’s operations are designed to facilitate illegal border crossings and hide illegally present aliens from law enforcement.”

Those claims stem from testimony from one of his office’s investigators, who was sent to check out the shelters in February, according to court records. In his sworn statement, the investigator said he saw Garcia delivering groceries to a shelter where “several Hispanics, from adults to small children [were] seen entering and exiting.” The researcher noted that three people had keys to the shelter, while everyone else had to ring the doorbell.

Those observations, Paxton wrote in a court document, “showed that Annunciation House operates in an unusually secretive manner.” Annunciation’s attorneys say that’s how migrant shelters operate for the safety of their guests and staff.

Annunciation House filed a lawsuit asking a judge to rule on whether Paxton’s documents should be released. The attorney general responded with a countersuit asking for the shelter to be closed.

Supporters of Annunciation House celebrated Tuesday’s ruling.

“Annunciation House and its volunteers have been important partners with the federal government, helping to provide temporary shelter for migrants released by CBP,” said Rep. Veronica Escobar (D).Tex.), whose district includes El Paso, posted on social media. “I am relieved that Ken Paxton’s abhorrent political attack, which wasted state and local resources and targeted a community leader, has been dismissed by the court.”

Jerome Wesevich, an attorney with Texas RioGrande Legal Aide, who represented Annunciation House, said Paxton’s efforts were “purely political.”

“There is no legal basis for closing a nonprofit organization that provides social services to refugees, period,” Wesevich said.

Paxton’s office has routinely sought evidence of alleged criminal activity by subpoenaing documents from nonprofits, businesses and medical centers. Since 2022, Paxton has used Texas consumer protection laws in more than a dozen cases to investigate organizations “whose work somehow conflicts with his political views or the views of his conservative base,” according to an analysis by ProPublica and the Texas Tribune.

As part of his investigation into transgender youth receiving gender-affirming care, Paxton in November requested patient records from medical facilities outside Georgia and Washington state. Earlier this year, he demanded membership records from PLFAG, an LGBTQ+ advocacy group. Critics have called the effort overreaching for the government.

Wesevich said nonprofits focused on immigration are increasingly the target of such investigations, citing similar investigations into Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, Team Brownsville and the Equal Justice Center.

With Tuesday’s ruling, “we hope that all of these materials will teach the attorney general how to conduct investigations properly,” Wesevich said. “No one is saying the attorney general doesn’t have the right to conduct investigations, but there are legal ways to do it.”

Arelis R. Hernández contributed to this report.

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