El Paso judge blocks Ken Paxton’s efforts to subpoena Annunciation House

A state judge on Monday blocked Attorney General Ken Paxton’s attempts to investigate an El Paso migrant shelter and questioned the state's intentions behind demanding documents from the non-governmental organization.

In an order essentially blocking Paxton’s subpoena of Annunciation House, state district court Judge Francisco Dominguez suggested the attorney general may want to shut down the network of migrant shelters for political reasons. That’s something the judge told Ryan Baasch, an assistant attorney general, during a court hearing last week.

“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,” Dominguez wrote in Monday’s order. “There is a real and credible concern that the attempt to prevent Annunciation House from conducting business in Texas was predetermined.”

Annunciation House had asked Dominguez to determine if it was obligated to release the documents Paxton’s office requested. In his ruling, Dominguez said Paxton’s office must go through the state’s court system if it wants to investigate the nonprofit.

“Both the Attorney General and Annunciation House are now obliged to litigate this matter within the guidelines set forth by the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure, created to ensure fair play between litigants,” Dominguez wrote.

In early February, Paxton’s office sent three lawyers to Annunciation House, seeking records about the shelter’s clients and gave the shelter director, Ruben Garcia, a day to turn over the documents. When Garcia’s lawyer, Jerome Wesevich, responded that it wasn’t enough time and asked a judge to determine which documents shelter officials are legally allowed to release, the AG’s office interpreted the delay as noncompliance and filed a countersuit to shut down the shelter network.

In court documents, the attorney general’s office has said Annunciation House appears “to be engaged in the business of human smuggling,” operating an “illegal stash house” and encouraging immigrants to enter the country illegally because it provides education on legal services.

Among the documents the state is seeking are logs of clients’ names, a grant application the shelter has filed with the federal government, materials it has provided to migrants and a list of all the shelters Garcia operates.

During a court hearing on Thursday, Baasch told Dominguez that Gov. Greg Abbott asked for an investigation into nonprofits that provide assistance to migrants.

Baasch said the case has unnecessarily escalated and the documents the state has asked for are “innocuous material.” He said state officials have offered to negotiate with Annunciation House.

Dominguez admonished Baasch over how he characterized the back-and-forth between the state and Annunciation House.

“This is the part where you’re starting to offend my intelligence,” Dominguez interrupted Baasch from the bench. “You did not offer to negotiate. You did not offer to act in good faith.”

Dominguez said Paxton’s office was “rude and unprofessional” when it made its demands for Annunciation House’s documents. He said that from “day one all I’ve heard is a willingness to comply” from Annunciation House “so that everyone’s interests are protected.

“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,” Dominguez added.

Baasch responded by saying the state’s request for the documents “may seem to impose a significant burden” on Annunciation House but that state law requires a quick response.

For the past few years, right-wing advocacy groups and Republican lawmakers have targeted non-governmental organizations that shelter migrants, many of them asylum seekers, blaming them for incentivizing illegal immigration with taxpayer money.

Those efforts come as religious figures, emboldened by the rise of Christian nationalism, continue to demonize migrants and those who aid them. Republicans have also amplified the “great replacement theory,” a white supremacist claim that there is an intentional, Jewish-driven effort to destroy white people through immigration, interracial marriage and the LGBTQ community.

Since March 2021, the state has spent over $10 billion as part of Abbott’s Operation Lone Star, a state effort to deter people from illegally crossing the Rio Grande. As part of the operation, Abbott has ordered National Guard members and state troopers to different parts of the border to arrest migrants illegally crossing the border. The state has also erected 23 miles of border barrier along different parts of the border.

Immigration is a key issue in the upcoming presidential election. Last month, President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump each visited different Texas-Mexico border cities. During his term, Biden has coupled strict immigration enforcement with narrow programs that allow some migrants to enter the country legally. Trump wants to reimplement policies that would force some migrants to wait in Mexico as their asylum cases are pending in U.S. courts. He has also said his administration would round up as many suspected undocumented immigrants for deportation.

Annunciation House operates several shelters in El Paso, helping immigrants and refugees obtain food and housing, and providing information on how to complete legal documents to claim asylum in the United States.

The nonprofit, which opened its first shelter at a local Catholic Church nearly 50 years ago and receives support from the church, said it has helped hundreds of thousands of refugees who have come through El Paso by feeding and keeping them off city streets.

We can’t wait to welcome you to downtown Austin Sept. 5-7 for the 2024 Texas Tribune Festival! Join us at Texas’ breakout politics and policy event as we dig into the 2024 elections, state and national politics, the state of democracy, and so much more. When tickets go on sale this spring, Tribune members will save big. Donate to join or renew today.