Texas Catholics challenge state restrictions on migrant transport

Kate Scanlon   By Kate Scanlon for CNA

Sister Norma Pimentel of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley / Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley

Washington D.C., Aug 13, 2021 / 16:04 pm (CNA).

Catholic organizations claim a Texas public health order infringes on their religious mission of helping migrants.

Last month, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) signed an executive order prohibiting anyone but law enforcement from transporting migrants, following their release from federal custody. He cited the pandemic as a reason for the order. The order has been halted from going into effect by a federal court until Aug. 27.

In response, the bishop of Brownsville in Texas – a border diocese – said that Catholics must be free to help migrants.

“We want to stop the spread of COVID-19 as much as the state does,” Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville, said in a statement on Friday. “But for that to happen, we need the government to let us do what Christ called us to do: minister to the strangers among us in their time of distress.”

In a July 28 statement, Abbott said his order was in response to a “dramatic rise in unlawful border crossings” that “has also led to a dramatic rise in COVID-19 cases among unlawful migrants.”

The Biden administration sued to block the order from going into effect, and federal district court Judge Kathleen Cardone temporarily blocked its implementation. A hearing in the case was held on Friday morning, after which Judge Cardone continued the temporary restraining order until Aug. 27.

Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, which runs a humanitarian respite center in the border town of McAllen, said the order would prevent it from carrying out its ministries, which include transporting COVID-positive migrants to quarantine locations.

A friend of the court brief filed by Becket on behalf of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley argued that Abbott’s order would actually increase local cases of COVID-19.

Catholic Charities said it tests each migrant who comes to its respite center for COVID, and only serves those who test negative onsite. Those who test positive are transported to hotels contracted by Catholic Charities or the city of McAllen, to quarantine for the duration of their illness.

Catholic Charities said that without its ministry, migrants would be dropped off at bus stations by federal border patrol agents without receiving a COVID test, thus increasing community spread of the virus.

Their brief further argued the state order “violates the religious liberty of Catholic Charities.”

According to the brief, state officials warned local Catholic leaders that law enforcement would be stationed by the entrance of the respite center to stop any car suspected of transporting migrants.

Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, said in a statement, “Caring for the stranger in need has always been at the core of the Catholic faith.”

“This order solves nothing and wrongfully endangers Catholic Charities’ religious mission to care for migrants,” Rassbach said. 

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