Texas Takes on El Paso NGO

As judge alleges that the state has ‘ulterior political motives’

By Andrew R. Arthur on May 13, 2024

In a court filing last week, Texas Attorney General (AG) Ken Paxton asked a state judge to revoke the registration of Annunciation House, an El Paso nongovernmental organization (NGO) affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church, which provides services to migrants. At issue is what sorts of services the group is actually providing.

Annunciation House. Annunciation House started in the late 1970s and has run shelters in El Paso, Texas, for several years. As its website explains:

Annunciation House is a volunteer organization that offers hospitality to migrants, immigrants, and refugees in El Paso, Texas. Rooted in Catholic social teaching, the volunteers of Annunciation House live simply and in community, in the same houses as the guests we serve, who are mostly from Mexico and Central America. We also participate in advocacy and education around immigration issues. We seek to be a voice for justice and compassion, especially on behalf of the most marginalized of our society.

Gov. Abbott’s Letter to AG Paxton. In December 2022, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott sent a letter to Paxton calling for an investigation into the role NGOs play in planning and assisting illegal border crossings into Texas. As Abbott stated therein:

There have been recent reports that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) may have assisted with illegal border crossings near El Paso. We further understand NGOs may be engaged in unlawfully orchestrating other border crossings through activities on both sides of the border, including in sectors other than El Paso.

The Document Request and Litigation. On February 7, the Consumer Protection Division (CPD) of the Texas’ Office of Attorney General (OAG) served a “Request to Examine” on Annunciation House, asking the NGO to turn over business records related to its operations “to investigate potential violations of state law”.

The statute authorizing such requests, Tex. Bus. Orgs. Code § 12.152, explains that:

To examine the business of a filing entity or foreign filing entity, the attorney general shall make a written request to a managerial official, who shall immediately permit the attorney general to inspect, examine, and make copies of the records of the entity. [Emphasis added.]

In response, the group sought 30 additional days to comply with that request, a delay OAG denied, warning the NGO that if it failed to produce the documents the next day, it would be deemed “non-compliant”.

On February 8, Annunciation House filed a petition in state court in Texas seeking a declaratory judgment on the question of whether that request by CPD violated its constitutional rights. That TRO was granted on February 8, and the matter was set over for a hearing two weeks later.

On February 20, OAG filed its answer to that petition, as well as a counterclaim seeking to revoke Annunciation House’s business registration for failing “to permit OAG to inspect, examine, and make copies of” its “records in response to a valid Request to Examine”.

Dueling Press Releases. Both sides issued their own press releases about the matter, and by this point the dispute wasn’t simply over business records.

In his press release, issued on February 20, Paxton complained:

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. ... While the federal government perpetuates the lawlessness destroying this country, my office works day in and day out to hold these organizations responsible for worsening illegal immigration.

Three days later, Annunciation House retorted:

The AG has now made explicit that its real goal is not records but to shut down the organization. It has stated that it considers it a crime for a Catholic organization to provide shelter to refugees.

The Attorney General’s illegal, immoral and anti-faith position to shut down Annunciation House is unfounded. Annunciation House has provided hospitality to hundreds of thousands of refugees for over forty-six years. It is a work recognized by the Catholic Church and is listed in the National Catholic Directory. Annunciation House has done this work of accompaniment out of the scriptural and Gospel mandate to welcome the stranger. Annunciation House’s response to the stranger is no different from that of the schools who enroll children of refugees, the clinics and hospitals who care for the needs of refugees, and the churches, synagogues, and mosques who welcome families to join in worship.

“The Attorney General’s Efforts to Run Roughshod over Annunciation House”. On March 10, El Paso District Judge Francisco X. Dominguez — a former legal aid attorney in New York City first elected as a Democrat to the bench in 2014 ruled that the NGO did not have to provide the requested documents at that time, writing:

The Attorney General’s efforts to run roughshod over Annunciation House, without regard to due process or fair play, call into question the true motivation for the Attorney General’s attempt to prevent Annunciation House from providing the humanitarian and social services that it provides. There is a real and credible concern that the attempt to prevent Annunciation House from conducting business in Texas was predetermined.

Judge Dominguez, however, denied the group’s request for a temporary injunction. He found that the matter was governed by the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure, which specifies timelines for the production of documents in civil cases like this one.

Texas’ Application for a Temporary Injunction. Texas’ attempts to shut down the NGO were far from finished, however, because on May 8, OAG filed an application for a temporary injunction in the case, seeking “to enjoin Annunciation House’s continued illegal alien harboring, and operations as a whole”.

In a press release announcing that filing, Paxton alleged:

Annunciation House’s own sworn testimony has shown that Annunciation House operates as a criminal enterprise. It knowingly shelters illegal aliens who evaded border patrol when crossing. It even goes into Mexico to retrieve aliens who border patrol denied. Then, by its own admission, it conceals those people in its shelters from law enforcement. It will let any alien in, yet it paradoxically refuses to comply with any law enforcement demands. Its own website even boasts that it houses people who crossed the border with “help from a coyote.”

It should be noted that in addition to being a federal offense under section 274 of the Immigration and Nationality Act, “Smuggling of Persons” is also a state crime in Texas.

Specifically, Texas Penal Code § 20.05, makes it is a crime for any person to knowingly “encourage[] or induce[] a person to enter or remain in this country in violation of federal law by concealing, harboring, or shielding that person from detection”. With certain exceptions, that crime is a felony of the third degree, punishable with a term of imprisonment up to 10 years.

Tying this contention together with the state’s initial document request, Paxton also contends in his latest press release that:

Annunciation House initially claimed it had a religious right to refuse compliance with OAG’s investigation. But when asked under oath how his religion would be burdened by producing documents to OAG, Annunciation House’s Executive Director admitted that it would not. And when OAG sought to ascertain what religious practices even occur at Annunciation House, its senior staff gave nonsensical answers, including practicing “the seven commandments.”

To date, Annunciation House has not responded to that application or to Paxton’s claims.

“Ulterior Political Motives”. In an early March hearing on the state’s document request, Judge Dominguez complained:

There was no attempt whatsoever to negotiate by the attorney general, which is what gives the court rise for concern that there are ulterior political motives here taking place that go outside of what the law requires, go outside of what the law demands. [Emphasis added.]

Given that I’m unfamiliar with the Texas business organization code, I can’t opine on whether the roughly 24 hours CPD gave Annunciation House to provide the requested documents was appropriate, which goes directly to the question of whether Texas’ refusal to negotiate further about the timing of that production reveals anything.

That said, Paxton — and the Texas state government as a whole — are plainly on opposite sides of the migrant crisis that has been unfolding at the Southwest border for the past three years from Annunciation House and its mission.

For example, the NGO’s website includes a “Border Awareness Experience”, a five- to 10-day trip that’s described as “an immersion experience meant to raise consciousness about the issues facing the border, such as immigration, economic development, human rights, and social justice”. I doubt that AG Paxton plans to attend.

While I can’t say whether Texas’ claims have merit, I can dispositively state that faith-based organizations aren’t usually exempt from compliance with state and federal laws. Even if they answer to a higher power, they usually must comply with secular authority, too.