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Judge rules against Texas AG in battle with nonprofit serving migrants

<i>Andres Leighton/AP via CNN Newsource</i><br/>Supporters of Annunciation House demonstrate in El Paso on February 23 after Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton tried to shut down the nonprofit.
Andres Leighton/AP via CNN Newsource
Supporters of Annunciation House demonstrate in El Paso on February 23 after Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton tried to shut down the nonprofit.

By Holly Yan and Dave Alsup, CNN

(CNN) — In a sharply worded decision, a judge has ruled against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in his ongoing legal battle with an El Paso nonprofit that helps migrants.

The dispute between Paxton and Annunciation House started over a month ago, when the attorney general’s office ordered the nonprofit to turn over a vast amount of documents within one day. Paxton claimed his office had information “strongly suggesting” Annunciation House had engaged in “alien harboring, human smuggling, and operating a stash house.”

After Annunciation House asked for more time, Paxton’s office deemed it noncompliant and tried to revoke the nonprofit’s registration.

But Paxton’s efforts were halted Monday when a judge ruled that his administrative subpoena is trumped by Texas’ rules of civil procedure about discovery.

El Paso County District Judge Francisco X. Dominguez also questioned Paxton’s true motivation.

“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 the court ruling.

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

CNN has reached out to Paxton’s office and Annunciation House for comment on the ruling.

How we got here and what happens next

Paxton’s office served an administrative subpoena on Annunciation House on February 7, with a request to examine records, according to court documents. But the subpoena “did not cite which Texas laws the Attorney General believed were being violated,” Dominguez’s ruling states.

“The Attorney General demanded production by February 8, 2024 or else Annunciation House would be deemed to be non-compliant,” the court document said.

An attorney for Annunciation House replied at the end of the day on February 7, saying it would provide the requested documents within 30 days.

Annunciation House obtained a temporary restraining order against the state’s wide-ranging demand to disclose the organization’s records “immediately.”

But Paxton said Annunciation House was noncompliant with the request to examine records and tried to revoke the nonprofit’s registration, according to a court filing in the district court of El Paso.

The attorney general’s office alleges Annunciation House “appears to be openly and flagrantly violating many provisions of law in a systemic fashion,” the filing said.

“Annunciation House has publicly claimed that it ‘hous(es) close to 300 migrants’ at a given time, ‘many of whom are stuck in limbo because they’ avoided law enforcement,” the court filing says, attributing some of its information to an article by El Paso Matters.

In the article, titled “Annunciation House helps undocumented immigrants apply for asylum,” the nonprofit’s director says some migrants want to seek asylum – but they fear that turning themselves in to authorities will lead to deportation.

“They’re saying, ‘We want to present ourselves. We want to get processed. We want to proceed with our asylum,’” director Ruben Garcia told El Paso Matters. “So from that was born the idea, let’s have a workshop on asylum. It’s about enabling asylum seekers to actually access the asylum process.”

The attorney general’s filing also alleges Annunciation House “appears to be engaged in the business of human smuggling.”

“According to its own in-Court admission, Annunciation House ‘contracts with a local company once or twice a week to transport migrants in passenger vans in groups of approximately 15,” the filing said.

Incidentally, the Texas state government said it has bused tens of thousands of migrants to Northern cities in the past two years.

Annunciation House said its work is beneficial to the city of El Paso, helping keep “hundreds of thousands of refugees coming through our city off the streets and (giving) them food.”

“Annunciation House has provided hospitality to hundreds of thousands of refugees for over forty-six years,” the group said.

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

“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 nonprofit said.

Both the Attorney General and Annunciation House must now litigate within the guidelines of the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure, “created to ensure fair play between litigants,” the judge ruled.

“This matter will proceed to a final adjudication in an efficient, orderly and respectful manner.”

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CNN’s Ed Lavandera contributed to this report.

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