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How Texas is still investigating migrant aid groups on the border after a judge’s scathing order

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McALLEN, Texas (AP) — Texas is widening investigations into aid organizations along the U.S.-Mexico border over claims that nonprofits are helping migrants illegally enter the country, taking some groups to court and making demands that a judge called harassment after the state tried shuttering an El Paso shelter.

The efforts are led by Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, whose office has defended the state’s increasingly aggressive actions on the border, including razor wire barriers and a law that would allow police to arrest migrants who enter the U.S. illegally.

Since February, Paxton has asked for documents from at least four groups in Texas that provide shelter and food to migrants. That includes one of the largest migrant aid organizations in Texas, Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, which on Wednesday asked a court to stop what the group called a “fishing expedition into a pond where no one has ever seen a fish.”

The scrutiny from the state has not stopped the organizations’ work. But leaders of some groups say the investigations have caused some volunteers to leave and worry it will cast a chilling effect among those working to help migrants in Texas.

Here are some things to know about the investigations and the groups:

What started the investigations?

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott sent Paxton a letter in 2022 urging him to investigate the role nongovernmental organizations play in “planning and facilitating the illegal transportation of illegal immigrants across our borders.” Two years earlier, Abbott began rolling out his multibillion-dollar border security apparatus known as Operation Lone Star.

Without citing evidence, Abbott’s letter referenced unspecified “recent reports” that some groups may be acting unlawfully. Paxton later accused Annunciation House in El Paso, one of the oldest migrant shelters on the border, of human smuggling and other crimes.

The groups have denied the accusations and no charges have been filed.

Other Republicans and conservative groups have cheered on Texas’ effort.

Which groups are targets?

Many nonprofit organizations on the Texas border are faith-based and have operated for years — and in some cases decades — without state scrutiny.

Several groups have coordinated with Abbott’s busing program that has transported more than 119,000 migrants to Democratic-led cities across the U.S. Some of those partnerships began to erode, however, following reports of poor conditions onboard the buses and frustration among migrant aid groups that migrants were arriving in cities without warning.

In addition to Annunciation House, Paxton has sent letters to Angeles Sin Fronteras in Mission, Texas; Team Brownsville; and Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley.

The Catholic Charities group is part of the Brownsville diocese and offers services to existing residents as well as migrants. It opened a shelter for migrants in 2017 that typically receives more than 1,000 people a week, most of whom stay only a few days.

In court documents, Catholic Charities said it provided over 100 pages of documents to Paxton’s office and a sworn statement from its executive director. But in June, Paxton asked a court to allow the state to depose a member of the organization about intake procedures, communication with local and state law enforcement, and the organization’s “practices for facilitating alien crossings over the Texas-Mexico border.”

Catholic Charities has denied wrongdoing and this week asked a judge to deny Paxton’s request.

What have courts said so far?

This week, a judge in El Paso accused Paxton’s office of overreaching in its pursuit of evidence of criminal activity.

That ruling involved Annunciation House, whose records Paxton began seeking in February. The Catholic shelter in El Paso opened in 1978.

In a scathing ruling, state District Judge Francisco X. Dominguez said Paxton’s attempts to enforce a subpoena for records of migrants violated the shelter’s constitutional rights.

“This is outrageous and intolerable,” the judge wrote.

Paxton’s office has not returned messages seeking comment on the ruling. The state could appeal the decision.

It is not clear when a court might rule in the investigation involving Catholic Charities.

Have Texas’ actions disrupted aid groups?

Each group that received letters from Paxton’s office has continued to offer aid to migrants.

But at Annunciation House, executive director Ruben Garcia said negative comments from Paxton have caused some volunteers to leave over concerns that they could get caught up in the legal process.

Marisa Limon Garza, the executive director of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso, said the legal actions toward their partners are seen as an attack on values of binational communities that help migrant communities. Garza added it’s had a “chilling” effect.

“If this organization that has over 40 years of commitment to standing in solidarity with the most vulnerable in our region is in the eye of the administration, that makes you wonder if your organization will be next,” Limon Garza said. ___ A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled the first name of Marisa Limon Garza as Marissa.

By VALERIE GONZALEZ
Associated Press

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