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A Diamond Key to the Golden Door: Walk to Free Suzi Hazahza

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"I hear you walk," said the motel manager in Anson, Texas, handing a key to Jay Johnson-Castro, the kind of key that has a diamond-shaped room number attached. "So what are you walking for?"

"I gave him a little rundown," says Johnson-Castro, speaking Wednesday night on the phone from the only occupied room in the motel:

"I'm an everyday guy who got angry at my country for wanting to build a wall at the border. So I walked in protest and seemed to attract some media attention. Then I learned about the prison camps that my country was building for immigrants. Then I learned about Hutto [the T. Don Hutto prison for immigrant families and children]. Then I learned about Haskell [the Rolling Plains prison at Haskell, Texas where immigrants are jailed with prisoners imported from Wyoming].

"I asked him, are you familiar with Haskell? And he shook his head yes. People around here seem to know. But I didn't push the issue." It was Johnson-Castro's fifth conversation of the day.

The first conversation, with Abilene Reporter-News correspondent Blanca Cantu, took place shortly after 9am, when Johnson-Castro began his walk to Haskell from the old Abilene train station.

"Johnson-Castro, of Del Rio, said he was outraged to learn from news reports that Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents took the members of a Jordanian family from their Richardson home and placed them in jail in Haskell where they have been detained for more than 100 days without an explanation from the government," wrote Cantu for the Thursday edition.

"In protest of what has happened to the Hazahza family - who allege harassment by other inmates, lack of medical care and inhumane conditions - Johnson-Castro is walking from Abilene to the jail in Haskell."

Cantu's report included a summary of last week's writ of habeas corpus filed in a Dallas federal court by New York attorneys Joshua Bardavid and Ted Cox, arguing that the Hazahza family should be released immediately. There is ''some sort of disconnect in the bureaucracy of immigration'' Bardavid told Cantu. The family is seeking asylum from threatening conditions in Palestine, but they were being treated as "absconders." The government has tried to deport the Hazahzas back to Jordan or Palestine, but can't secure the travel documents.

For 20-year-old Suzi Hazahza, her 23-year-old sister Mirvat, their father Radi, and younger brother Ahmad, the bad connections of history and power have blown them into a prison hell that could last another 80 days or more.

As Johnson-Castro concluded his interview with Cantu outside the downtown post office, a reporter from KTAB news waited nearby with a camera. The reporters both seemed fair and polite, he says.

Traveling with Johnson-Castro is friend John Neck who drives along behind the walker to keep him safe from traffic. Neck had stepped out of his truck to take pictures of the walker talking to Abilene reporters. Next thing Neck knows is a Federal Marshall stepping out of the post office, asking why is he taking pictures of a federal building? We call it conversation number three.

Later down the road, the Haskell County Sheriff pulls over to chat. Right now Johnson-Castro is walking in Jones County, but the Sheriff is running an errand to Abilene and stops to talk to the walker.

The Sheriff warns Johnson-Castro that the Haskell City Council, the Haskell County Commissioners, and the Rolling Plains prison officials employed by the Emerald Companies of Louisiana have all instructed the Sheriff to keep Johnson-Castro away from the prison.

"But isn't that a public county road?" asked Johnson-Castro. There will be another day or two to try to work something out before the walker arrives in Haskell Saturday afternoon for a prison vigil to free Suzi Hazahza. Meanwhile, Johnson-Castro asked the Sheriff if he has jurisdiction over any crimes committed in Haskell County.

"The Sheriff said yes, he did have jurisdiction over any crime in the county," says Johnson-Castro. "So I asked him if he had jurisdiction over any crimes committed in jail? And he said he did. So I told him about some of the things that were going on. He didn't seem too comfortable with that."

Johnson-Castro explained to the Sheriff that his walk would be calling attention to conditions at the Haskell prison and raising "questions that need to be answered." Who's in there? From what countries? How are they being treated? What are their genders? Their ages? Are there translators to handle communication? Do they have counselors to talk to? How are abuses handled? Are prisoners filing any complaints of abuse? How are the complaints handled?

"We want to know all that, I told him. And we're going to get it. He was very polite, very reserved, very professional, and I think he even offered some solidarity."

Besides the five countable conversations of the day, we're not reporting the one that goes on all the time between the walker Johnson-Castro and his friend John Neck.

"It's an interesting part of Texas," says Johnson-Castro of the 17 miles that he walked Wednesday along Highway 277. "And I admire this part of Texas a lot. The people here live more the way people used to live when they lived off the land. It's a working community, and you see farm equipment everywhere along with oil equipment."

"We passed one mobile home with an SUV parked outside, a bar-b-que grill, a big pile of dirt, and a big tree. Outside was a big cross and a big Texas star. This is the country we live in," says Johnson-Castro. "And they still believe in prohibition. It will be interesting to see how their conscience responds to the abuse of people like Suzi."

Reflecting on the silent headshake from the motel manager that acknowledged Haskell prison, Johnson-Castro takes it as a sign:

"The people around here know, but they're not talking. There are lots of people who have worked at Haskell prison camp over the years. And they haven't told anyone either. They're just not telling. I'm going to make an appeal for people to let their conscience go to work and tell what they know. Let's put an end to this travesty on Texas soil. We'll see how they respond."

Although it didn't make the newspaper, Johnson-Castro is fond of quoting the Statue of Liberty. He calls this walk the "Huddled masses yearning to breathe free walk" in honor of immigrants like Suzi Hazahza who on this warm and windy day are locked up inside the Haskell prison. He quotes the famous stanza right up to the ending: "I lift my lamp beside the golden door."

"Do you know what the golden door is?" he asks over the phone. "The golden door is the promise of opportunity in America, the promise to enjoy the freedoms. There's a group of people that believe that their ancestors weren't really immigrant immigrants. There's a group that wants to stop immigrants. Immigration is offensive to them, and they are willing to treat people badly because of it."

On Wednesday the Abilene Reporter-News announces a Klan rally at the nearby college town of Stephenville. Jay Johnson-Castro and John Neck are only two people, and the story of conscience they deliver to the pages of the Abilene newspaper Thursday arrives just in time.
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Greg Moses is a member of the Texss Civil Rights Collaborative and editor of The Texas Civil Rights Review. He writes about peace and Texas, but not always at the same time.

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