Catholic Charities claims that a Texas order restricting migrant transit violates religious freedom.

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Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley is attempting to prevent Texas Gov. Greg Abbott from enforcing an executive order that it claims will prevent it from providing essential services at its Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen to migrants who have been processed and released by the Border Patrol after entering the country.

The executive order, which the governor claims is intended to prevent the spread of COVID-19, authorises only law enforcement personnel to convey groups of migrants by land in the state. The order also authorizes the Texas Department of Public Safety to stop, on reasonable suspicion, any vehicle that might be transporting migrants and reroute it back to its point of origin or impound it.

The U.S. Department of Justice is suing the state of Texas to permanently bar enforcement of the order. The department is asking for a preliminary injunction that would stop enforcement until the lawsuit is resolved and plans to ask for a permanent injunction if it prevails in the case.

The nonprofit Becket Fund for Religious Liberty filed a friend-of-the-court brief Aug. 12 on behalf of Catholic Charities that supports the request for an injunction. The brief says Executive Order GA-37 violates the First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion and the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

At the request of the Justice Department, U.S. District Judge Kathleen Cardone issued a temporary restraining order blocking enforcement of the executive order until Friday. A decision on the preliminary injunction request is pending.

Essential services

The respite center offers transitional care to the migrants and then staffers often drive them to a more permanent shelter or to the airport or bus station so they can reunify with family members. About 1,000 migrants are seen each day, and if they can’t be moved out after they receive services, other newcomers will have to be turned away for lack of space, said Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley.

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The center, working city and county officials, arranges for COVID-19 testing for migrants. Those who test positive are taken to quarantine spaces provided by hotels and city and county officials.

The others are admitted to the center, where they are offered a place to rest briefly, meals, hot showers and clean clothes. Volunteer doctors and nurses assist the mothers who are pregnant or nursing, and migrants can meet with volunteer lawyers to learn more about their rights and the legal process.

Most of the migrants who use the center are families, many of them mothers traveling with children. Single men and unaccompanied minors are not served there.

The friend-of-the-court brief says providing migrants with food, COVID-19 testing and transportation is part of Catholic Charities’ ministry.

“Religious exercise is by no means limited to what happens in the four walls of a church on Sunday morning,” Eric Rassbach, Becket’s vice president and senior counsel, told UPI.

Public health concerns

Executive Order GA-37 alleges that busloads of migrants, an unknown number of whom are infected with COVID-19, are being transported to communities across Texas, which poses an imminent threat of disaster for all counties.

But despite the emergence of the highly contagious Delta variant of COVID-19, President Joe Biden has thwarted the effect of a Trump administration policy that allows for the swift expulsion of migrants at the border in the interest of public health, the order alleges.

“The dramatic rise in unlawful border crossings has also led to a dramatic rise in COVID-19 cases among unlawful migrants who have made their way into our state, and we must do more to protect Texans from this virus and reduce the burden on our communities,” Abbott said in a news release.

Under the order, only federal, state or local law-enforcement can provide ground transportation to “a group of migrants” who have been detained by the Border Patrol for crossing the border illegally or who would have been subject to expulsion under the Trump administration policy. The order, which Abbott signed on June 28, does not say whether driving a single migrant somewhere would be a violation.

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The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

In her declaration, which was filed with the friend-of-the-court brief, Pimentel says a Texas Department of Public Safety official met on June 28 with her and Mario Alberto Avilés, auxiliary bishop of Brownsville, and said the order was effective immediately and Catholic Charities was prohibited from transporting any migrants in vehicles of any kind to any location.

The DPS official told them that once enforcement began, a patrol car would be stationed at the center’s entrance, and officers would stop any vehicle suspected of transporting migrants.

The Justice Department says in its lawsuit, which was filed on July 30 in U.S. District Court in El Paso, that federal law pre-empts the executive order. In addition, the order jeopardizes the health and safety of noncitizens in custody and law enforcement personnel and their families and exacerbates the spread of COVID-19, the suit alleges.

The Texas Attorney General’s Office counters there is no pre-emption issue because the executive order’s purpose is to promote public health in the state and does not prevent the United States from enforcing federal immigration law.

“Suffering from the ongoing release of migrants who may spread COVID-19, Texas was not required to sit on its hands,” the state says in a brief arguing against a ban on enforcing the order.

The state’s brief also says the fact that non-governmental agencies sometimes test migrants for COVID-19 after they are released from federal custody does little to protect public health. A family of migrants who went to a La Joya restaurant, where they were coughing and sneezing without covering their mouths, were sick with the virus but had been released by the Border Patrol days before, according to the brief.

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The friend-of-the-court brief says Catholic Charities and the people of the Diocese of Brownsville have made a positive difference in the lives of thousands and that “they merely ask to be left to serve in peace.”

“An injunction against the order would protect religious freedom and the well-being of those Catholic Charities serves,” the brief says.

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