United States of America v. State of Texas
The Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas serves families—primarily mothers and children—who would otherwise be left on the street. As a ministry of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, the Respite Center provides food, clothing, medical care, and temporary rest for over 1,000 migrants each day who have been released by Border Patrol. On July 28, 2021, Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued an Executive Order forbidding non-governmental entities from transporting migrants anywhere in Texas. The Order was supposedly intended to slow COVID-19 transmission, but it would have the opposite effect. Enforcement of this Order would prevent the Humanitarian Respite Center from transporting COVID-positive people to quarantine locations, increasing the risk of COVID infections and impeding the Center’s religious ministry. The federal government filed a lawsuit challenging the Order and, on August 12, 2021, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case on behalf of Catholic Charities, asking the court to block the Order and protect Catholic Charities’ ministry, the health and safety of the migrants they serve, and the local McAllen community. On August 26, the district court issued an injunction blocking Governor Abbott’s order while the case continues in court.
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The Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas, ministers to over 1,000 recent migrants each day. The Center was created in 2014 by Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, a ministry of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brownsville. The Center has served more than 100,000 migrants to date and is the first stop for many migrant families after they cross the border and are released by law enforcement. At the Center, families dropped off by Border Patrol receive COVID tests and transportation to quarantine locations, if needed. Those without COVID enter the Center to receive basic necessities: medical attention, food, water, temporary shelter from the elements. Catholic Charities then transports them to hospitals, shelters, or on their way to reunite with family.
Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, incoming migrants are tested for COVID-19 before entering the Center. Migrants who test positive are safely quarantined at nearby hotels. However, on July 28, 2021, Texas issued an Order forbidding non-governmental entities from transporting migrants anywhere in Texas. While supposedly intended to prevent COVID-19 transmission, the Order in practice would prevent the Humanitarian Respite Center from taking migrants from the Center to local bus stations, airports, hospitals, and more permanent shelters. And it would prevent the Center from safely transporting COVID positive migrants to quarantine locations. Instead, with the Center unable to take in any more migrants, Border Patrol would leave migrants—without ever testing them for COVID—at local McAllen bus stations, increasing the likelihood of COVID transmission in the community and leaving young women and children with no means of contacting transportation or procuring food and water.
Concerned about the negative impact this order would have on the federal government’s operations, the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit on July 30, seeking to block enforcement of the order. On August 3, a federal judge in El Paso granted temporary relief, set to expire on August 13. On August 11, 2021, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, pointing out that the order impeded the religious rights of Catholic Charities contrary to federal and state law. After a court hearing on August 13, the district court issued an injunction that protects Catholic Charities Rio Grande Valley from Governor Abbott’s order while the case continues in court. The court recognized the vital role of religious ministries, finding “sufficient evidence” that federal officials must rely on the transportation efforts of “NGO-partners” like Catholic Charities “in order to operate the immigration system successfully.”
As Becket’s friend-of-the-court brief explains, both state and federal law protect the free exercise of religion – including the exercise of religious ministries like the Humanitarian Respite Center. Not only did the order potentially increase the spread of COVID-19, but it also – in violation of state laws protecting religious exercise – threatened the Center if it carried out its religious mission of serving the vulnerable.
The case is currently pending in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, El Paso Division.