Texas’ Battle With Catholic Migrant Ministries Raises Religious-Liberty Concerns

Some say the government’s crackdown on groups like Annunciation House infringes upon believers’ right to live out their faith through service, while others contend the state is animated by concern for the rule of law, not anti-Catholic bias.

Migrants walk near a Catholic shelter in Brownsville, Texas, on May 6, 2023.
Migrants walk near a Catholic shelter in Brownsville, Texas, on May 6, 2023. (photo: Moisés Ávila / AFP via Getty Images)

Texas’ border with Mexico is home to a staggering humanitarian crisis, with record numbers of migrants entering the United States daily. But it’s also become the scene of what some contend is an ongoing pattern of serious violations of religious liberty, in the form of state government crackdowns on Catholic charities ministering to the new arrivals.

In recent months, Texas authorities have sought to limit Catholic agencies’ services provided to migrants, cut off funding sources, and even tried to shut down a decades-old ministry, in what state officials claim are necessary moves to stem illegal immigration.

But critics contend that the government’s actions against these Catholic entities — who primarily provide food, hygiene needs, temporary shelter and, for asylum seekers permitted in the country by the government, assistance in traveling to family members — are politically motivated. Texas is locked in a showdown with the Biden administration over immigration policy, and targeting Catholic charities, critics say, may be a way of complicating even legal immigration and causing additional disorder at the border in order to influence federal policy.

Jennifer Carr Allmon, director of the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops (TCCB), said it was “disingenuous” to claim that Catholic ministries were encouraging illegal immigration.

“No one is undertaking the perilous journey to America for a brief stint in one of our shelters,” she told the Register.

The aggressive confrontations with Catholic ministries appear to be part of Operation Lonestar, a state-led effort to reduce illegal immigration in response to the Biden administration’s failure to do so. Texas also passed S.B. 4, a measure which would allow state law enforcement to arrest those they suspect of immigrating illegally and empower state judges to deport them to Mexico. The measure was blocked by an appeals court March 20, just hours after the Supreme Court had given Texas the go-ahead to enforce it.

Dylan Corbett, director of the Hope Border Institute (HOPE), an El Paso-based Catholic advocacy organization, told the Register that Texas is targeting Catholic charities with “salacious” accusations of being complicit in human trafficking to “intimidate those who would care for migrants” and “cast aspersions on the act of hospitality” in public perception.

He added that border ministries are carried out by people of faith “who believe that they’re encountering Christ in the migrant and are following the injunction in Matthew 25” to welcome strangers and feed and clothe the poor.

But Texas state authorities, Corbett said, “are encroaching on the rights of believers to put their faith into action.”


Annunciation House

The latest alleged instance centers on Annunciation House in El Paso, a charity that has provided assistance to migrants arriving in the border town for nearly 50 years. 

On Feb. 20, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sued Annunciation House for failing to immediately comply with a request for documents that his office said would substantiate claims that the charity was “engaged in legal violations such as facilitating illegal entry to the United States, alien harboring, human smuggling and operating a stash house.” 

Court filings show that the Office of the Attorney General based these suspicions on observations that, for instance, only three people had keys to an Annunciation House facility, while others had to ring a doorbell to gain access, and that the charity provides migrants with training in U.S. immigration law. The office described the charity as having an “unusually covert way” of operating.

Paxton’s lawsuit sought to “revoke Annunciation House’s authorization to do business in Texas” and to “liquidate their assets.”

“The chaos at the southern border has created an environment where NGOs, funded with taxpayer money from the Biden Administration, facilitate astonishing horrors including human smuggling,” wrote Paxton in an accompanying statement.

Annunciation House and Catholic leaders have categorically denied these allegations and say the government is undermining their religious liberty.

“The [Attorney General’s Office] has stated that it considers it a crime for a Catholic organization to provide shelter to refugees,” said Annunciation House in a statement, describing Paxton’s move as a “illegal, immoral, and anti-faith.”

El Paso Bishop Mark Seitz offered a similar assessment, saying that the Church was “hemmed in on all sides” in its ministry to migrants, failed both by “federal neglect” but also by Texas’ “escalating campaign of intimidation, fear, and dehumanization,” which included “the targeting of those who would offer aid as a response of faith.”

“We will vigorously defend the freedom of people of faith and goodwill to put deeply held religious convictions into practice,” the bishop 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.”

The bishops’ conferences of both Texas and the U.S. made similar statements.

Catholic concerns were vindicated in a ruling by El Paso District Court Judge Francisco Dominguez, who delayed Paxton’s demands for Annunciation House’s records on March 11 and said that the attorney general’s “efforts to run roughshod” over the charity may have been politically motivated.

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


A ‘Top-Five Threat’

The Texas government’s clash with Annunciation House isn’t the first time that the state has intervened in Catholic charities’ work with migrants, sparking religious-liberty-infringement complaints.

In fact, at the start of 2024, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops identified “threats to religious charities serving newcomers” as one of “the top-five threats to religious liberty” in the coming year, alongside issues like religious employers being forced to provide abortion coverage and doctors being mandated to perform “gender-transition procedures.” 

The bishops’ report noted that, in the prior year, “dramatic, conspiratorial claims” about ministries to migrants had led to government retaliation and even threats of violence, with one conservative commentator calling for “shooting everyone involved with these fake charities” as a step to stopping undocumented immigration. The USCCB said that these kinds of threats to religious liberty “will likely increase as the issue of immigration gains prominence in the election.”

The issue was also prevalent in 2021, when Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order prohibiting the transport of migrants, citing concerns about the spread of COVID-19. 

Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville wrote at the time that the move effectively targeted Catholic Charities’ work with asylum seekers and undermined “our religious obligation to serve those who are suffering in front of us.”

Allmon with the Texas bishops’ conference told the Register that the Catholic Church’s preferential treatment of migrants is rooted in Scripture and is “essential to the practice of our faith.”

“Catholic Charities has been accused numerous times of prioritizing care for the vulnerable, the sick and the outcast, all of which often describe the migrants we serve,” she said. “Those accusations are valid: Acts of charity and mercy are central to our faith.”


Rule of Law and Questioning Motives

But not all Catholic leaders agree that the Texas government’s legal actions against Catholic ministries to migrants violate their religious liberty.

Andrea Picciotti-Bayer, a legal analyst for EWTN News and the director of the Conscience Project, wrote for National Review that there was no reason to believe Paxton’s actions were “motivated by anti-Catholic sentiment” and cautioned against making unfounded accusations of religious-liberty violations.

In follow-up comments to the Register, Picciotti-Bayer offered praise for Annunciation House’s works of mercy, but said that “if care is not consistent with the rule of law and legitimate restrictions on immigration, then there’s a big problem.”

“Religious freedom does not endorse lawlessness,” she said, suggesting that there may be legitimate concerns that Annunciation House is housing and providing transportation to those who don’t have a legitimate claim to be in the country, “especially if the law is a just, though inconvenient, one.”

A request to the Texas Attorney General’s Office to clarify if Annunciation House is legally required to determine the immigration status of those it serves, and if serving undocumented immigrants would be illegal, was not returned prior to publication.

Others have gone further, suggesting that the work of groups like Annunciation House and Catholic Charities aren’t entirely motivated by faith, but by money, as charities providing services to migrants receive grant funding from the federal government.

In 2022, Catholic Vote, a political advocacy group, filed a lawsuit against the Biden administration with the intent of securing all communications between government agencies and Catholic entities along the Texas border.

“We want to know: What role are Catholic charities, dioceses, or Catholic-affiliated relief organizations playing in this effort? Are they helping house migrants in homes, hotels, or shelters? Are they paying for transportation, flights, buses or other services — with government money?” Catholic Vote’s director, Brian Burch, wrote at the time. “Is what they are doing legal? And is it the right thing to do?”

More recently, Rachel Campos-Duffy, a Catholic and Fox News contributor, said on social media that it is “time for the Catholic Church to end its addiction to government money,” adding that she is “embarrassed that the Church is complicit in human and sexual trafficking at the border.”


Sowing Disorder?

Catholic officials like Allmon reject these claims, noting that Catholic ministries were aiding migrants long before federal grant money was involved, much of which was initially doled out by the Trump administration.

“The idea that we adjust our work to get more money is, frankly, offensive,” she said.

Corbett with HOPE said it makes sense that the government would collaborate with local nonprofits to ensure that there is safety and order at the border and that, with decades of experience ministering to migrants, Catholic charities “know how to get the job done.”

In fact, he suggested that by attempting to shut down ministries like Annunciation House that provide critical services to migrants, Texas authorities would actually be contributing to the lawlessness and disorder they claim to be addressing.

“If you wanted to cause chaos at the border, you’d do what the attorney general is doing,” he said.

Allmon added that by targeting Catholic ministries in the name of ending human trafficking, the government is likely to exacerbate the number of victims, by shifting potential targets to massive tent facilities operated by the government, with lower child-to-staff ratios and “serious risks of abuse and neglect of a highly vulnerable population.”


Reform and Root Causes

Catholic charitable organizations don’t see their ministry to migrants as political — but that doesn’t mean that public policy isn’t part of addressing the ongoing crisis at the border.

TCCB, for instance, advocates for “targeted, humane, and proportional” border-security polices as a critical part of addressing the United States’ broken immigration system, along with policies that protect family unity and allow newcomers to integrate more fully into local communities.

“People who come to this country seeking to work, to live in peace and to secure a better future for their children are not the problem,” Allmon told the Register. “Our broken immigration systems, other destabilized nations, and the failure of both political parties to appropriately address these factors are the issues. The crisis at the border will not be solved by an enforcement-only approach nor a total-amnesty approach.”

HOPE focuses in particular on addressing the root causes of immigration and advocates for the U.S. government to work in solidarity with Latin American countries in combating corruption, protecting labor rights, and reducing economic inequality.

“Almost everybody that you would meet if you came to the border today, none of them have chosen to migrate willingly. They’ve all been forced,” said Corbett, citing factors like poverty in Guatemala, violence in Nicaragua, and a corrupt socialist government in Venezuela.

But whether or not those root issues are resolved or security is enhanced, Catholic charities on the border will continue to provide care to those who show up — and hope that the state government will leave them out of partisan brinkmanship.

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