Tex. judge blocks move to close migrant shelter, calls AG’s actions ‘outrageous’

A state district court judge blocked Texas’s attempt to shutter a decades-old migrant shelter network near the U.S.-Mexico border Tuesday, calling Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton’s actions “outrageous and intolerable.”

Paxton earlier this year demanded that Annunciation House, which operates several shelters serving migrants and refugees, turn over records showing the names of those it housed. 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 allegations were unfounded and his request for documents violated the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches. Thus, his ruling said, it was void and unenforceable.

“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,” Dominguez, a Democrat elected to the bench in 2014, wrote. In seeking the shelter’s 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 request for comment; it’s 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 “facilitating the unlawful entry of illegal aliens into Texas is undermining the rule of law and potentially jeopardizing the safety and wellbeing of our citizens,” Paxton said in a March statement.

Annunciation House is a faith-based network of shelters headquartered in El Paso. It has taken in thousands of undocumented immigrants for nearly five decade. Working in collaboration with U.S. immigration officials, the shelters provide migrants with food, clothes 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 arrived.

But as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott(R)has clamped down on illegal immigration, state investigators raised questions about the organization, and in court records claimed that the shelters are “stash houses” sheltering the undocumented from authorities. Meanwhile, the shelter network drew 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 engages in what he deemed “systemic criminal conduct” and said his office had “obtained sworn testimony” showing that “Annunciation House’s operations are designed to facilitate illegal border crossings and to conceal illegally present aliens from law enforcement.”

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

Those observations, Paxton wrote in a court filing, “showed that Annunciation House operates in an unusually covert way.” Annunciation’s attorneys have said 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 to release any of the documents Paxton was seeking. The attorney general responded with the countersuit seeking the shelter’s closure.

Supporters of Annunciation House celebrated Tuesday’s ruling.

“Annunciation House and its volunteers have been important partners to the federal government, helping provide temporary shelter to migrants released by CBP,” Rep. Veronica Escobar (DTex.), whose district includes El Paso, posted on social media. “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.”

Jerome Wesevich, an attorney at the Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, which represented Annunciation House, said Paxton’s efforts were “purely political.”

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

Paxton’s office has routinely sought evidence of alleged criminal activity by demanding documents from nonprofits, companies and medical centers. Since 2022, Paxton has in more than a dozen instances leveraged Texas’s consumer protection laws to investigate organizations “whose work conflicts in some way 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 probe into transgender youths receiving gender-affirming care, Paxton in November requested patient records from out-of-state medical facilities in Georgia and Washington. Earlier this year, he demanded membership records from PLFAG, an LGBTQ+ advocacy group. Critics decried those efforts as government overreach.

Wesevich said immigration-focused nonprofits have increasingly become the target of such probes, referencing similar investigations into Catholic Charities in the Rio Grande Valley, Team Brownsville and the Equal Justice Center.

With Tuesday’s ruling, “we hope that all of these materials will educate the Attorney General in how to properly conduct investigations,” Wesevich said. “Nobody says that the Attorney General doesn’t have any right to conduct investigations, but there are legal ways to do it.”

Arelis R. Hernández contributed to this report.