February 27, 2024 // National

Bishop Rhoades Expresses ‘Solidarity’ Amid Lawsuit in Texas

On Monday, February 26, Bishop Rhoades, Chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee for Religious Liberty, expressed solidarity with faith-driven ministries to migrants and noted the special need to protect religious liberty. His remarks commended the February 23 statement issued by the Catholic bishops of the State of Texas following a lawsuit against a Catholic nonprofit serving migrants and asylum-seekers at the Southern border.

“It is hard to imagine what our country would look like without the good works that people of faith carry out in the public square,” Bishop Rhoades said. “For this, we can thank our strong tradition of religious liberty, which allows us to live out our faith in full.

A family of migrants is dropped off by a transport contractor for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection at a shelter run by Annunciation House in downtown El Paso, Texas, Dec. 13, 2022. (OSV News photo/Ivan Pierre Aguirre, Reuters)

As the tragic situation along our border with Mexico increasingly poses challenges for American communities and vulnerable persons alike, we must especially preserve the freedom of Catholics and other people of faith to assist their communities and meet migrants’ basic human needs. I join my brother bishops in the State of Texas in expressing solidarity with those seeking simply to fulfill the fundamental biblical call: ‘Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’”

Bishop Rhoades’ statement comes on the heels of other Catholic leaders and local officials condemning an attempt by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to shut down Annunciation House in El Paso, Texas, which officials in his office accused of “facilitating illegal entry to the United States” and “human smuggling,” filing a lawsuit in an attempt to shut it down.

Paxton’s lawsuit sparked immediate outrage from Bishop Mark J. Seitz of El Paso, who vowed in a February 22 statement supporting Annunciation House that the Church would “vigorously defend the freedom of people of faith and goodwill to put deeply held religious convictions into practice.” He wrote, “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.”

Ruben Garcia, Director of Annunciation House, told reporters at a press conference on Friday, February 23, that the nonprofit has been providing basic resources such as food, shelter, and water to migrants and refugees who arrive at the border for nearly 50 years in consultation with the U.S. Border Patrol.

“There are individuals who have decided that that should be illegal,” he said.

In a February 20 statement announcing his lawsuit against Annunciation House, officials in Paxton’s office alleged the group was a “stash house” facilitating illegal entry to the United States, a charge Garcia took particular umbrage with.

“I personally am taken aback by the use of words like ‘smuggling,’ to call our houses of hospitality ‘stash houses,’” he said. “Is there no shame?”

Jerome Wesevich, a Texas RioGrande Legal Aid attorney representing Annunciation House, said officials in Paxton’s
office sent representatives to Annunciation House demanding the group hand over documents within just one day and without judicial review, which he said was outside appropriate legal norms and requirements.

Wesevich said that courts, not the attorney general’s office, are the appropriate arbiters of whether documents should be turned over, and, if so, then which documents.

“This should be an orderly process,” Wesevich said.

“What has turned into this, a roomful of people,” he said, gesturing at those gathered for the press conference, “could have been handled in a few emails between reasonable people. Instead, it appears that Attorney General Paxton wants to use this request for documents simply as a pretext to close Annunciation House, and he did not realize what he was getting himself into. So, we feel that the law is pretty strong on our side.”

Wesevich added, “Attorney General Paxton compounds his abuse of power by focusing it on a religious organization that is putting the Catholic faith into practice.”

Annunciation House, Wesevich said, “does not decide who gets to come to the United States and who gets to stay here. … Other people worry about those things,” Wesevich said. “Annunciation House only provides basic services to vulnerable families – food, clothing, a place to lay their heads. America remains a free country where the law protects Annunciation House’s right to do this work.”

In comments at the press conference, Bishop Seitz reiterated his pledge that his El Paso diocese and the Catholic Church would stand by Annunciation House.

“This is not about politics,” Bishop Seitz said. “It’s about the Gospel.”

Annunciation House operates several shelters in the El Paso area, assisting migrants and refugees with food, housing, and other assistance, as well as information about how to fill out the required legal documents to claim asylum in the United States.

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