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Texas: Investigation of Civic Groups Dangerous for Rights

Gov. Abbott’s Call for Probe has Effect of Suppressing Fundamental Freedoms

Texas Governor Greg Abbott, left, and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton confer after an Operation Lone Star roundtable discussion on March 10, 2022, in Weslaco, Texas.  © 2022 Joel Martinez/The Monitor via AP

(Washington, D.C., December 20, 2022) – Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s efforts to investigate nongovernmental organizations acting to protect basic rights pose a serious threat to fundamental freedoms under United States constitutional law and international human rights law, Human Rights Watch said today. The Texas attorney general should stop the investigation immediately. 

On December 13, 2022, Governor Abbott sent a letter to Texas Attorney General Kenneth Paxton urging him to open an investigation into organizations providing legal and humanitarian assistance to immigrants, and alleging, without providing any evidence, that such groups were  “unlawfully orchestrating” border crossings. On December 15, Paxton announced that he had opened an investigation into groups providing such legal and humanitarian assistance to immigrants.  

“Texas Governor Abbott and Attorney General Paxton are once again taking legal action to score political points at the expense of fundamental rights,” said Alison Leal Parker, deputy US director of Human Rights Watch. “The decision to investigate immigrants’ rights groups is an arbitrary and unjustified attack on freedom of association and expression, with dangerous consequences for other rights.”

The Texas authorities’ decision to investigate these groups comes as thousands of immigrants are walking across the border, many in single file orderly lines, and entering El Paso. Governor Abbott’s earlier responses to migration include the $4 billion discriminatory and abusive border militarization program known as Operation Lone Star.

Newly arriving immigrants often include people who are coming to the US to present an asylum claim, which is lawful under US immigration and international refugee law regardless of the manner of arrival or entry. They also include people who have other legal grounds to remain in the US but require legal assistance as well as assistance with basic needs, such as shelter and food, while their cases are considered.

“All arriving immigrants, regardless of how they enter the US, have a right to seek asylum under US law,” Parker said. “This dubious investigation is a flagrantly abusive attempt by Abbott and Paxton to block this fundamental right and to sow fear among civil society groups engaging in lawful activities protected by US and international human rights law.”

Politically motivated investigations are familiar to civil society groups fighting for fundamental human rights elsewhere in the world, Human Rights Watch said. Human Rights Watch has investigated laws and policies attempting to suppress civil society groups in countries such as Egypt, Hungary, and Russia, as well as some governments’ misguided attempts to block migration by criminalizing nongovernmental groups providing lifesaving aid to migrants, such as in Greece and Italy. The attempts in these and other countries to instill fear and curtail lawful activities of civil society groups have increased the risks migrants face but as a rule have not affected migrants’ decisions to leave their homes and attempt to reach safe destinations.

“The efforts by Abbot and Paxton to threaten immigrant rights groups by bringing unjustified investigations smack of the suppression found in some of the world’s most abusive countries,” Parker said. “It’s in everyone’s interest to allow these groups to exercise their human rights to freedom of association and expression.”

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