© 2024 Texas Public Radio
Real. Reliable. Texas Public Radio.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Judge rejects Paxton’s ‘outrageous and intolerable’ efforts to close Annunciation House shelters

Supporters of Annunciation House gather on Friday, Feb. 23 at Casa Vides to hear community and local leadership speak in support of the humanitarian organization.
Corrie Boudreaux
El Paso Matters
Supporters of Annunciation House gather on Friday, Feb. 23 at Casa Vides to hear community and local leadership speak in support of the humanitarian organization.

An El Paso district court judge has denied Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s efforts to shut down the Annunciation House network of migrant shelters in El Paso, saying the state was harassing its employees and guests.

In a pair of rulings issued Tuesday morning, 205th District Judge Francisco Dominguez said the AG’s office efforts to shut down the nonprofit organization on allegations that it is operating a stash house are “unenforceable,” stating those statutes are pre-empted by federal law.

“The record before this Court makes clear that the Texas Attorney General’s use of the request to examine documents from Annunciation House was a pretext to justify its harassment of Annunciation House employees and the persons seeking refuge. This Court previously expressed its concern that the Attorney General did not identify what laws he believed were being violated from the outset,” Dominguez wrote in an order granting Annunciation House’s request to block Paxton’s demand for records.

“In fact, the record before the Court now establishes that the Attorney General was seeking evidence of alleged criminal activity all along. This is outrageous and intolerable,” Dominguez wrote.

In a second ruling, Dominguez rejected Paxton’s efforts to close Annunciation House for failing to produce records on demand, calling the state’s efforts to obtain documents from Annunciation House, which has deep ties to the Catholic church, “unconstitutionally vague.”

He said the request violated the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act by substantially burdening its “free exercise of religion.”

“In my heart of hearts I would hope … that this truly would be a determining action and that this would bring it to an end. That’s my hope, that would be my prayer,” Annunciation House founder and director Ruben Garcia told El Paso Matters following the ruling.

“I’m realistic enough to know it probably won’t end here and for that I’m very sorry,” Garcia said, adding that he expects the attorney general to appeal the ruling.

El Paso Matters is seeking comment from the Attorney General’s Office.

In his ruling, Dominguez said the actions by Paxton, a Republican, were motivated by politics.

“As the top law enforcement officer of the State of Texas, the Attorney General has a duty to uphold all laws, not just selectively interpret or misuse those that can be manipulated to advance his own personal beliefs or political agenda,” the judge wrote.

Dominguez, a Democrat, was initially elected to his civil court bench in 2014.

Jerome Wesevich, an attorney for Texas RioGrande Legal Aid who is representing Annunciation House, in a press briefing Tuesday said the organization hoped that the attorney general will “see and respect the bounds that the court described.”

Wesevich said that one worry has always been what would happen if Paxton succeeded in his efforts and Annunciation House shelters were to close.

“All that’s going to mean is more people in the streets. How does that help? All it does is provide a narrative of chaos on the border, which is a narrative that some people politically want to promote, but that is not the case in El Paso,” he said.

The judge’s ruling doesn’t set any kind of precedent at this level, Wesevich said, but having the “reasoning” on paper allows other related cases that comes up to cite the ruling.

“It would be fair to ask any other court to account for the reasoning that this court made,” he said. “So it’s persuasive authority. It’s not controlling.”

In a statement, El Paso Bishop Mark J. Seitz of the Catholic Diocese of El Paso said this was a “day of gratitude” for the work of the Annunciation House and the community’s hospitality workers.

“This is also an important moment for religious freedom and a recognition of the important role that faith communities play in helping our nation lead with compassion and humanity in meeting the challenges of migration at the border,” he said. “We look forward to continuing to work with our federal and state partners in identifying solutions to our broken system of immigration, working for reform and addressing the growing humanitarian crisis of deaths at the border.”

El Paso Congresswoman Veronica Escobar, a Democrat, in a Facebook post following the ruling also called Paxton’s actions politically motivated.

“Annunciation House and its volunteers have been important partners to the federal government, helping provide temporary shelter to migrants released by (U.S. Customs and Border Protection),” she stated. “I’m relieved Ken Paxton’s repugnant political attack, which wasted state and local resources and targeted a community leader, was struck down by the court.”

In recent months, Paxton and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott have criticized Annunciation House and other Catholic organizations for providing services to migrants on the border. In an interview on “60 Minutes” that aired May 19, Pope Francis called Paxton’s efforts to close Annunciation House “madness.”

Paxton accused Annunciation House of operating “stash houses” and engaging in human trafficking – allegations vigorously disputed by Annunciation House and its supporters in El Paso.

The court conflict between Paxton and Annunciation House began Feb. 7, when three representatives from the Attorney General’s Office served Annunciation House with a request to examine operational records.

The following day, Dominguez granted Annunciation House’s request for a temporary restraining order against the attorney general. Paxton countersued Annunciation House on Feb. 20, alleging the nonprofit failed to immediately respond to his requests for records and should be stripped of its ability to do business in Texas.

At the first hearing in the case March 7, Dominguez suggested Paxton had “ulterior political motives” in seeking records from Annunciation House. Dominguez issued an order March 11 blocking further action by the Attorney General’s Office until he could review legal arguments, saying Paxton had “run roughshod over Annunciation House, without regard to due process or fair play.”

Annunciation House, a nonprofit, has been providing what it calls hospitality for migrants and refugees since 1978. It was founded by Garcia and others associated with the El Paso Catholic Diocese who drew inspiration from St. Teresa of Calcutta.

Federal border enforcement officials have long released migrants to Annunciation House after they’ve been processed and given a court date. The migrants generally stay in shelters for a day or two before their families or sponsors buy them bus or plane tickets.

Annunciation House was one of the primary sites used by the Trump administration to reunite children who had been separated from their parents in 2018.