Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has asked the state’s attorney general to investigate nongovernmental organizations he claims are helping migrants illegally cross the border near El Paso – a move area nonprofits call unfounded allegations aimed at criminalizing groups providing humanitarian aid to migrants.

Abbott didn’t name any organizations in his letter to Attorney General Ken Paxton on Wednesday, nor did he provide any evidence to support his allegations. 

“We further understand NGOs may be engaged in unlawfully orchestrating other border crossings through activities on both sides of the border, including in sectors other than El Paso,” Abbott’s letter states.

Fernando Garcia, director of the Border Network for Human Rights, called Abbott’s move a personal attack on El Paso, an abuse of power, and a “racist distortion of what’s happening on the border.”

“What is very concerning is that now by the statement itself, he’s attempting to criminalize not just immigrants, but humanitarian work in Texas,” Garcia said. 

Maria Aldama reunites with family members from Mexico that she has not seen in 20 years during the Border Network for Human Rights ‘Hugs not Walls’ event in June 2021. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

A human rights advocacy and immigration reform organization in El Paso, BNHR is known for its annual “Hugs Not Walls” events where families separated by the U.S.-Mexico border reunite along the banks of the Rio Grande for a few minutes. Garcia said the group works with border agencies, local police and various nonprofits to put together the event. He said the group works to inform and educate migrants and others about their rights and provide basic necessities such as food and clothing.

“Nobody here is doing anything illegal. We’re helping people in distress,” he said. 

Garcia said that he considers the governor’s move a response to groups like his that have denounced and criticized his controversial border security initiatives, including Operation Lone Star.

In a statement, U.S.Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, said Abbott’s move is “shameful and intended to intimidate and instill fear in non-profit and faith-based organizations.”

“Most border NGOs that work tirelessly on the border help provide temporary shelter, food and hospitality to migrants, most of whom will be awaiting adjudication of their asylum claims with sponsors they have in different parts of the country,” Escobar said. “They have been doing this work for decades and deserve our praise, not persecution.”

The call for an investigation comes days before Title 42 is to be lifted. The health order that allows border agents to expel migrants without allowing them to request asylum is to end Dec. 21 after a federal judge ruled it unlawful. 

The Southwest border is already seeing record immigrant encounters – though many are repeat encounters. Border enforcement agents in the El Paso sector, which includes El Paso and all of New Mexico, are encountering up to 2,500 migrants daily. 

About 1,250 migrants were released to shelters and the county’s migrant processing center on Tuesday, the city’s migrant dashboard shows. About 300 migrants were released to the streets Tuesday, bringing the number of street releases to more than 3,400 since Nov. 4.

Ruben Garcia, director of Annunciation House that has been assisting migrants in the region for more than 40  years, says goodbye to the migrants aboard a chartered bus paid for through the nonprofit that departed El Paso for Denver on Thursday, Nov. 3. Garcia didn’t return calls for comment for this story Tuesday. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

With those rising numbers, nongovernmental organizations have been working overtime to shelter, feed and transport the migrants, who have been processed by border agents and allowed to remain in the country temporarily to await their immigration hearings.

Putting out unsubstantiated allegations can damage the reputations – and fundraising efforts – of those organizations that rely heavily on good Samaritans to volunteer and provide donations, leaders of some of those groups said.

“The language coming from the governor’s office is alarming and an unequivocal attempt to intimidate humanitarian organizations working on the front lines to provide a robust community response to the situation at the border,” said Dylan Corbett, executive director of Hope Border Institute. “We have worked for years to ensure safe and legal pathways for those seeking protection and asylum.”

Hope Border Institute, a faith-based social justice organization based in El Paso, last month launched a health clinic in Ciudad Juárez to help migrants in need of medical attention. In partnership with the Mexican federal government and the migrant shelter Centro Integrador para el Migrante, Clinic Hope works with volunteer El Paso health professionals to provide basic health services.

The institute also recently partnered with El Paso Bishop Mark J. Seitz to create the Border Refugee Assistance Fund to aid migrants stranded in Juárez as a result of changing immigration policies.

“This is a moment for border communities to come together to meet a humanitarian challenge,” Corbett said. “We need the support and collaboration of the government at all levels, not political grandstanding that dangerously sounds like the governor is criminalizing Good Samaritans.”

El Paso native Cindy Ramirez has spent most of her career in journalism, with some stints in public and media relations and military reporting. She's covered everything from education to local government...