NEW YORK – A Catholic migrant shelter in El Paso has defended its decades-long track record of serving migrants and called an attempt by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to shut down its ability to operate in the state “illegal, immoral and anti-faith.”

“Annunciation House has kept hundreds of thousands of refugees coming through our city off the streets and given them food,” Annunciation House said in a Feb. 21 statement. “The work helps serve our local businesses, our City, and immigration officials to keep people off the streets and give them a shelter while they come through our community.”

“If the work that Annunciation House conducts is illegal – so too is the work of our local hospitals, schools, and food banks,” noted the organization, which has operated in El Paso since 1978.

Paxton’s office announced on Feb. 20 that he sued Annunciation House, seeking to revoke the organization’s registration to operate in the state. According to the announcement, Paxton’s office has reviewed public records that suggest the organization is “engaged in legal violations such as facilitating illegal entry to the United States, alien harboring, human smuggling, and operating a stash house.”

Paxton said he “demanded access” to records related to these potential violations, which Annunciation House failed to produce, and that’s what prompted the lawsuit. Annunciation House claims that when Paxton asked for documents it asked the courts to decide what documents Paxton can legally access, which the organization argues is its legal right to do.

However, Paxton’s office claims it has “complete and unlimited authority” to examine business records.

“And the consequence of a flagrant failure to comply with such a request is that OAG may terminate the business’s right to operate in Texas,” the announcement from Paxton’s office states. “The OAG lawsuit seeks to revoke Annunciation House’s authorization to do business in Texas and asks the court to appoint a receiver to liquidate their assets.”

Paxton himself argues that NGOs facilitate “astonishing horrors” at the border.

“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,” Paxton said Feb. 20. “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.”

In response, Annunciation House said Paxton’s comments show his goal all along was to shut it down.

“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 organization said. “The Attorney General’s illegal, immoral and anti-faith position to shut down Annunciation House is unfounded.”

Annunciation House opened in 1978, two years after a small group of young adults in El Paso first gathered to discuss whether something like it was possible. Then, in the fall of 1977 the second floor of an old building owned by the Diocese of El Paso became vacant, which the five young adults moved into in early 1978 with no money or resources, but with a commitment to serving the poor.

It operates under the “scriptural and Gospel mandate to welcome the stranger.”

After Paxton announced the lawsuit a number of Catholic humanitarian organizations came to the defense of Annunciation House, calling Paxton’s actions a “morally unacceptable attempt at intimidation.”

“These actions seek to criminalize essential humanitarian aid provided by local faith communities and NGOs and are an attack on the fundamental Catholic imperative to welcome the stranger, as well as a vicious targeting of borderland community members resisting the militarization of border communities,” the humanitarian organizations said in a Feb. 21 joint statement.

The statement was signed by the Hope Border Institute, Catholic Charities of Southern New Mexico, Sisters of Mercy, Franciscan Action Network, Pax Christi USA, Network Lobby for Catholic Social Justice, St. Columban Mission,  Las Americas Migrant Advocacy Center, Estrella del Paso, and the Border Servant Corps.

Dylan Corbett, the executive director of the Hope Border Institute – an El Paso faith-based humanitarian organization that works closely with the Diocese of El Paso, Annunciation House, and other organizations – called the actions of Paxton “vile” considering “faith-based organizations in particular have been picking up the pieces of a broken [immigration] system for decades.”

“This is a threat. This is a shot across the bow. It’s an action designed for political effect. It’s an action designed to have a chilling effect,” Corbett said during a migration webinar on Feb. 21.

Corbett, who is an official at the Vatican’s Migrants and Refugees Section and a migration consultant to the USCCB, also defended the executive director of Annunciation House, Ruben Garcia. He said Garcia is “a symbol of our resilience as a community, our ability to put faith into action.”

“When they attack him. They are attacking all of us,” Corbett said.

“The community will rally behind Ruben and Annunciation House. We’ll stand together because that work represents the best of El Paso,” Corbett added. “It represents the best of the border, which is a welcoming, generous, can-do spirit focused on practical solutions, and passion for doing what’s right.”

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