Catholic migrant shelter calls ‘human smuggling’ accusations ‘utter nonsense’

texas border Migrants mostly form Central America wait in line to cross the border at the Gateway International Bridge into the U.S. from Matamoros, Mexico, to Brownsville, Texas, on June 4, 2024. | Credit: CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images

As Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is threatening to shut down a Catholic nonprofit known as Annunciation House for allegedly facilitating illegal border crossings from Mexico, a lawyer for the group has called the state’s claims “utter nonsense.”

Attorneys representing both sides argued before El Paso District Judge Francisco Dominguez in a hearing on Monday.

Jerome Wesevich, a lawyer with Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid (TRLA), which is representing Annunciation House, claimed that Paxton’s actions constitute an attack on the free exercise of religion and violate the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Rob Farquharson, an attorney with the Texas attorney general’s office, claimed that Annunciation House has been breaking portions of the Texas penal law that prohibits “knowingly encourag[ing] or induc[ing] a person to enter or remain in this country in violation of federal law by concealing, harboring, or shielding that person from detection.” 

He said the nonprofit has “expressly said that the federal government knows that undocumented persons reside at Annunciation House” and the shelter “publicizes its willingness to shelter [illegal] immigrants and yet the federal government does not prosecute.”

Meanwhile, Wesevich called the state’s accusations “utter nonsense,” saying that “there’s no legitimate dispute that Annunciation House serves undocumented persons as an expression of the Catholic faith and Jesus’ command to love one another, no exceptions.” 

“I would submit that if religious freedom does not allow Annunciation House to obey Jesus’ primary command to love another by providing a child a safe and warm place to sleep on a cold night, then there is no religious freedom in Texas,” Wesevich said. 

What is Annunciation House?

Located just a few minutes from the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso, Annunciation House is a lay-run Catholic organization that offers migrants temporary shelter, food, and clothing and advocates on their behalf. 

The attorney general’s office first approached Annunciation House on Feb. 7 with concerns that it may be facilitating illegal immigration. Paxton’s office ordered the nonprofit to immediately turn over various documents and records to examine whether it is engaged in unlawful activities. 

On Feb. 20 Paxton filed a lawsuit against Annunciation House, accusing the nonprofit of being “engaged in the operation of an illegal stash house by potentially allowing others to use its real estate to engage in human smuggling.” 

Dominguez issued a temporary ruling in March in which he said that Paxton could not revoke Annunciation House’s license to operate or force it to turn over documents immediately.

In a court document filed by Paxton in May, he claimed to have “reviewed and obtained sworn testimony” indicating that the nonprofit is engaging in illegal immigration activities.

Paxton said the group’s “own sworn testimony” as part of ongoing legal proceedings show that Annunciation House “knowingly shelters illegal aliens” and “even goes into Mexico to retrieve aliens who[m] border patrol denied.”

In response, Annunciation House has called Paxton’s actions “illegal, immoral, and anti-faith” and his allegations “unfounded.” 

What happened at the hearing?

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During the hearing, which according to Dominguez was held online due to “security concerns,” Farquharson claimed that the nonprofit’s refusal to comply with the order to turn over documents relating to its operations “demonstrates concealment, harboring, and shielding” of illegal activity.

He also claimed that Annunciation House has been violating the Emergency Food and Shelter Act’s requirement to keep daily logs of the migrants they serve.  

Dominguez pressed Farquharson on whether Paxton’s lawsuit diminishes Annunciation House’s Fourth Amendment right to freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures and to due process.

“Are you saying that Annunciation House, regardless of what they do or who they are harboring, to use your language, are you saying they have a diminished Fourth Amendment right?” the judge asked.

Farquharson responded that nonprofits are not guaranteed the same degree of Fourth Amendment protections as individuals.

Wesevich countered that “corporations have Fourth Amendment rights” and said that Paxton has no authority to shut Annunciation House down because “there has been no clear proof of any violation of law.”

“The attorney general is not looking for documents,” Wesevich said. “What the attorney general is looking for is an excuse to close Annunciation House.”

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Wesevich went on to say that the “burden of proof of reasonableness” for Paxton’s records request “belongs only to the attorney general.”

TRLA held a press conference after the hearing during in which Wesevich said that Texas’ actions are “an obvious attack on Annunciation House’s fundamental right to practice the Catholic faith.”

Wesevich told CNA during the press conference that if Paxton were to be successful in his actions against Annunciation House the result would be “more people out on the streets” and “everywhere more chaos.”

“If the attorney general were successful, it would result in no decreased immigration whatsoever and only increased chaos,” he went on. “For us, for the business community, for the community at large, for the religious community, as well as for the government.”

What’s next?

Dominguez said during the hearing that he plans to issue a ruling in the next two weeks.

Wesevich said that though he is optimistic, he believes that Dominguez’s ruling will likely be appealed and that the case will go on to higher courts.

Paxton’s office did not reply to CNA’s request for comment.  

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