Despite Legal Threats, Texas Ministries Say ‘The Work of God Can Never Be Illegal’ | Sojourners

Despite Legal Threats, Texas Ministries Say ‘The Work of God Can Never Be Illegal’

Ruben Garcia, executive director of Annunciation House, speaks at the March and Vigil for Human Dignity in El Paso, Texas on March 21. REUTERS/Justin Hamel

Faith-based migrant ministries in Texas are used to operating in tough circumstances, including finding the right resources, meeting migrant needs, and funding their day-to-day work. But recent legal challenges have left some Texas faith leaders uncertain about the future of their ministries.

At the forefront of these legal challenges is Senate Bill 4, a bill passed by Texas lawmakers in 2023 which would make it a state crime for migrants to cross the border into Texas at any unauthorized point and allow authorities to arrest people for doing so. Though it was expected to go into effect in early March 2024, the bill was delayed by legal challenges from the U.S. Justice Department, framed as an unconstitutional infringement on the federal government’s power to set and enforce immigration law. The Supreme Court briefly cleared the way for the law’s implementation on March 19 before it was blocked just hours later when the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued an administrative stay. The court heard formal appeals on April 3 in New Orleans, but at the time of publication, the law remains blocked.

Many ministries feel that if SB4 is allowed to stand, the bill and ensuing legal actions will erode existing welcoming efforts across the state.

“SB4 will unequivocally create an environment of fear and distrust in local Texas communities, erode welcoming efforts, and legitimize racial profiling,” said Melissa Cedillo, a board member of Hope Border Institute, an organization working to advance justice and end poverty on the U.S./Mexico border.

Cedillo told Sojourners that families with members of different legal statuses, who already live in fear that one of their family members could be deported, may be more reticent to seek out care from migrant ministries.

“They may now feel they have to learn how to exist in the shadows, to live so that they are not noticed in the hope it might offer them some kind of protection, instead of shelters and hospitable ministries.

“The atmosphere these legal actions make may mean they will not even try to access these services or connect with ministries designed specifically for them,” she said.


Hundreds joined Hope Border Institute, Ruben Garcia, director of Annunciation House, and members of diverse religious traditions as they gathered at San Jacinto on Thursday, March 21 to march to Sacred Heart Church in Downtown El Paso for a vigil for the human dignity of migrants.

Offering hospitality, breaking the law?

Many faith leaders, including Michael Hunn, bishop of the Episcopal Church’s Diocese of the Rio Grande, are demanding that local, state, and federal governments institute policies that allow them to offer the hospitality they feel called to give.

“As a Christian person, I am thinking about the time when a lawyer asked Jesus, ‘What is the most important commandment?’” Hunn told a diverse crowd gathered in San Jacinto Plaza in El Paso, on March 21 for the “Do Not Be Afraid” march and vigil organized by Hope Border Institute. Hunn then recounted the well-known gospel story of the Good Samaritan, who compassionately helped a stranger (Luke 10:25-37).

The Samaritan, Hunn told a crowd of clergy, Catholic sisters, students, and leaders from different organizations serving migrants, did not ask for papers before serving his neighbor. Nor should they, Hunn said. Instead, he told them, “we call upon the government to have fair policies to allow us to love our neighbor,” as the crowd erupted in cheers.

But SB4 is not the sole legal challenge facing migrant justice work in the Lone Star State. Texas officials have also attempted to close faith-based immigrant-serving organizations like El Paso’s Annunciation House, a Catholic network of shelters that receives and assists asylum seekers.

On Feb. 7, representatives from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office came to Annunciation House, seeking records from their director Ruben Garcia and claiming the Catholic charity was engaged in “alien harboring, human smuggling, and operating a stash house.” In legal proceedings, the attorney general’s office said it considers it a crime for the organization to provide shelter. In March, a state judge blocked Paxton’s office’s attempts to investigate the shelter. Then, on May 8, the attorney general’s office filed a temporary injunction against Annunciation House, claiming in a statement the charity is, “designed to facilitate illegal border crossings and to conceal illegally present aliens from law enforcement.” Though a similar attempt by Paxton’s office was blocked back in March, the outcome of the ongoing legal battle remains up in the air, with a decision by the El Paso District Court expected soon.

Whatever the outcomes of SB4 and his own case, Garcia believes the damage to migrant ministries in the Lone Star State might already be done. As part of court proceedings, Judge Dominguez mentioned his concern that the attorney general’s office was operating on the premise of “ulterior political motives” in the probe and that very fact is hurtful and damaging to the entities they sought to investigate.

“Before anything is decided, before any ruling, just submitting the request to examine us is in and of itself damaging,” Garcia said. “If the AG were to email us tomorrow, deciding to drop the case, Annunciation House would still have already suffered the ill effects.

“It raises the question whether that was part of the design from the start,” Garcia said.


Local leaders took part in a news conference on Feb. 23 to denounce the lawsuit filed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton against El Paso-based Catholic nonprofit Annunciation House.

Pastoring amid changing legal situations

Nathan Wendorf, a Lutheran pastor in Harlingen, a city of 71,000 near the Mexico-Texas border, said it has been hard to keep up with the fluid legal situations as a parish pastor. In the meantime, Wendorf said he and his congregation keep trying to serve their neighbors as best they can.

While Wendorf’s congregation has no migrant-specific ministry, his membership includes an immigration judge, migrants from Mexico, Colombia, and El Salvador, local law enforcement, as well as volunteers who accompany migrants to other parts of the state or to airports where they fly to family and sponsors in other parts of the country.

Wendorf said with their various levels of involvement with migrants, SB4 — or the outcome of the attorney general’s investigation — would undoubtedly have an impact on his church or those like them along the Texas border.

For now, Wendorf said, “the way we approach it, we don’t make it a political or legal issue, but a neighbor issue.” 

“We just try to ask the question, ‘What would Jesus do with this person, in this moment, to bring dignity and respect?’” he said. “We don’t make statements; we try to make a difference. It’s messy, but we’re okay with it.”

But back in El Paso — a city that prides itself for being welcoming, warm, and friendly — six volunteers have already left Annunciation House since February, whether because they personally felt they could not stay or because, Garcia said, “their families told them, ‘You need to get out of Texas.’”

Garcia sympathizes, saying the situation can make people afraid to help. “People are going to be hesitant to volunteer, to respond to refugees’ needs, in part because it is so unclear if a volunteer is exposed to criminal risk as result of this law and lawsuit,” he said. “Whether it’s taking someone to the hospital, giving them water in the desert or welcoming them into their church, there is this fear that they are going to be questioned because they provided assistance.

“Until there’s clarity, I wouldn’t want to volunteer either,” Garcia said.

Pauline Hovey, who volunteered at Annunciation House and is on the board of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, one of the plaintiffs in the SB4 lawsuit, said she fears young people in particular might have to rethink whether or not they will volunteer for migrant assistance programs in Texas.

“If helping immigrants becomes something that you can get arrested for or goes on your record, they might have to reconsider,” she said.

But Hovey hopes people are galvanized, not traumatized, by the current legal battles. For that to happen, Garcia said people have to take a step back and ask themselves what is really going on here.

“As a result of that reflective process — perhaps as part of their faith practice or their meditation — they should realize that this kind of action goes to some very fundamental questions related to our values,” he said.

Echoing Bishop Hunn’s remarks at the march and vigil, Garcia asked, “if we’re driving along and we see someone on the side of the road, if we pass them by does that say something about us? If we encounter someone, a family who does not have enough to eat and we don’t do anything about that, does it say something about us?”

Hovey, for one, is ready to continue serving, no matter the law of the land. “I will continue to do whatever needs to be done,” Hovey said. “When it comes down to it, people of faith are going to have to make that choice: What is the most important goal? Who am I doing this for? I am doing this for a higher power.”

Recalling Bishop Mark Seitz of the Catholic Diocese of El Paso, who told those gathered for the “Do Not Be Afraid” march and vigil that, “the work of God can never be illegal,” Hovey said, “I think my faith supersedes what the law states.

“And if the law means I can’t offer compassion or to help my fellow humans survive, I won’t let the law stop me,” she said.

Update: Shortly after this story was published, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office filed a temporary injunction against Annunciation House. This story was updated to reflect that news.