Catholics rally around Annunciation House after lawsuit

(RNS) — Catholics are rallying around Annunciation House, a network of Catholic migrant shelters based in El Paso, Texas, after the state’s attorney general, Ken Paxton, has attempted to shut down the nonprofit. 

“Our church, our city and our country owe Annunciation House a deep debt of gratitude,” El Paso’s Catholic Bishop, Mark Seitz, wrote in a statement released Thursday (Feb. 22). 

The bishop emphasized that the nonprofit has worked with local government and federal law enforcement partners, “stepping into the breach to take action where many will not.”

Paxton’s 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,” according to his office.

The lawsuit was filed after Annunciation House filed suit and sought a restraining order to push back on the attorney general’s demand for documents from the organization, including documentation with identifying information about their clients.

Paxton’s office said they sought the documents because they suspected Annunciation House of “facilitating illegal entry to the United States” and described their lawsuit as a “consequence” of Annunciation House’s pushback.

FILE – Texas state Attorney General Ken Paxton makes a statement at his office, May 26, 2023, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)

Ruben Garcia founded Annunciation House in 1976 after Mother Teresa visited El Paso to speak with his diocesan youth group. The ministry’s name is drawn from a letter the Catholic saint sent Garcia, urging him to bring people off the streets home to a house of annunciation.

Seitz called for a focus on “shared human dignity” instead of politics, saying that El Paso’s actions will be judged by that standard.

“I know the guests at Annunciation House, those trapped on the other side of the border and those who have died trying to cross it,” the bishop wrote.

Seitz described his diocese as “hemmed in on all sides” and “in an impossible position.”

On one hand, the bishop said, “we are challenged by serious federal neglect to provide a safe, orderly and humane response to migration at our southern border.” 

Bishop Mark Seitz at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting in Orlando, Florida, Thursday, June 15, 2023. (RNS photo/Jack Jenkins)

Bishop Mark Seitz at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting in Orlando, Florida, Thursday, June 15, 2023. (RNS photo/Jack Jenkins)

And on the other, “we are now witnessing an escalating campaign of intimidation, fear and dehumanization in the State of Texas,” Seitz explained, specifically making references to Texas’ use of concertina wire and a new law making crossing the border illegally a state crime, which would allow police to arrest those suspected of breaking it.

In January, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered Texas to remove concertina wire from along the river.

Dylan Corbett, executive director of Hope Border Institute, a Catholic organization that supports migrants in the border area around El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, told Religion News Service that targeting humanitarian organizations at the border is the way to create chaos at the border.

“If your strategy is to sow chaos at the border, this is how you do it,” Corbett said, adding that collaboration between faith groups and the federal government is what maintains dignity and order at the border.

Dylan Corbett. (Photo via Twitter)

Dylan Corbett. (Photo via Twitter)

Corbett said the new state law on illegal border crossings, scheduled to go into effect March 5, will erode trust between law enforcement and migrants and mixed families.

Corbett called Paxton’s lawsuit “an escalation in their war on migrants, on border communities, on people of color in Texas,” and said that it was “intended to have a chilling effect,” sowing fear in volunteers who work with migrants. 

Texas Governor Greg Abbott, a Catholic, launched Operation Lone Star in 2021, when he used a disaster declaration to deploy the Texas National Guard to the border. 

The governor’s posture on border security grew into a standoff with the federal government over access to the border earlier this year. 

On Jan. 12, while the Texas Military Department blocked U.S. Border Patrol’s access to the border, a woman and two children drowned in the Rio Grande. Even after those drownings, the department did not allow Border Patrol access to rescue two more migrants in distress, who were rescued by Mexican authorities.

A group of Catholic and borderland humanitarian organizations put out a statement on Wednesday (Feb. 21) signaling their intent to stand behind Annunciation House. “Annunciation House is an essential, reliable, and faithful partner in the El Paso community,” they wrote.

Migrant parents talk at the Annunciation House, June 26, 2018, in El Paso, Texas. (AP Photo/Matt York)

Migrant parents talk at the Annunciation House, June 26, 2018, in El Paso, Texas. (AP Photo/Matt York)

The group included Corbett’s Hope Border Institute, Estrella del Paso, Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, Border Servant Corps, Franciscan Action Network, St. Columban Mission for Justice, Peace and Ecology, the Sisters of Mercy, NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice, Pax Christi USA, Catholic Charities of Southern New Mexico, Texas Rising, Abara, the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns and Derechos Humanos Integrales en Acción.

Seitz, Corbett and the broader coalition of organizations all raised Paxton’s actions as an attack on religious liberty.

“This is an attack on the Gospel and an attack on the rights of believers and people of goodwill to put their convictions into practice,” Corbett said.

The coalition of Catholic and borderland organizations challenged President Joe Biden’s administration to step in.

“We call on the Biden Administration to vigorously defend the protection of vulnerable migrants at the border and to challenge the entire Operation Lone Star in court,” they wrote.

To Texas, they wrote, “We demand that the State of Texas end its campaign of intimidation against people of faith and aid workers and stop using migrants and believers as pawns in political games.”

At the end of his statement, Seitz made several promises to his community. 

“We will not be intimidated in our work to serve Jesus Christ in our sisters and brothers fleeing danger and seeking to keep their families together,” he wrote.

Moreover, the bishop promised, “We will not surrender the identity of our borderlands, a place which chooses compassion over indifference, human fraternity over division, and radical hope and evangelical love over hatred and exclusion.”

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