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Showdown Over Texas Immigrant Prisons

There are different kinds of angry. Jay Johnson-Castro has tears in his eyes when he thinks about Suzi Hazahza at the immigration prison of Haskell, Texas.

But he’s not going to cry without doing something, so next week, Johnson-Castro will walk sixty miles from Abilene to Haskell and hold a vigil for the release of Suzi Hazahza and “anyone else” being mistreated for their desire to be American.

“I’m almost in tears trying to tell you how angry I feel,” says Johnson-Castro via cell phone as he drives home to Del Rio, Texas on Tuesday evening following three weeks of border protests.

He’s talking now about 20-year-old Suzi Hazahza and how she was subjected to body searches so humiliating that she has refused all visitors since early December. In a federal habeas corpus brief that will be filed Wednesday in Dallas, lawyers allege that both Suzi and her 23-year-old sister Mirvat have been subjected to repeated humiliations at the hands of prison guards. And according to Suzi’s fiance, the searches got even worse after his fifth visit when Suzi called begging not to be visited again.

“I can”t believe a fellow American would do that to anybody,” says Johnson-Castro. “But I’m afraid that’s the policy not the exception.”

Dallas real-estate developer Ralph Isenberg has seen the pattern before. It happened to his wife in Haskell under similar circumstances. She was imprisoned for immigration violations stemming from “bad lawyering” and once Isenberg started making noise about things he didn’t like at Haskell, his wife, too, was subjected to a full body-cavity search. To this day, he recalls the sound of the scream that the search provoked.

In protest of Suzi Hazahza’s treatment and confinement, Johnson-Castro will begin his freedom walk in Abilene on Wednesday, Feb. 28, arriving at the Rolling Plains prison in Haskell for a vigil on Texas Independence Day, March 3.

Ralph Isenberg says he’ll host Johnson-Castro in Dallas prior to the walk and introduce him to some people he has helped to free. During the walk, Isenberg pledges to join Johnson-Castro for a time, and if he can get enough people together, Isenberg plans to meet Johnson-Castro at the Haskell prison on Texas Independence Day with a bus full of people from Dallas.

“The good people of Haskell have no cognizance of what’s happening to sweet innocents such as Suzi Hazahza,” says Johnson-Castro. “And when they find out, they will rise up like the people of Williamson County did against the Hutto jail.”

Outrage at the jailing of children at the T. Don Hutto immigration jail keeps growing, joined this week by Dallas Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson and the chair of the House subcommittee on immigration Zoe Lofgren (D-CA). Both of them told WFAA reporter Brett Shipp that child imprisonment is flat wrong, period.

And grassroots distaste for immigrant jailings sparked a new protest Tuesday from honor students of Fort Worth’s Tarrant County Community College who are angry that a wonderful fellow student has also been tossed into Haskell jail for “bad lawyering.”

The Fort Worth protest for 19-year-old immigration prisoner Samantha Windschitt was covered by two Metroplex television networks, which is a story in itself.

“The good news is that all the insane things that have been happening in a disconnected way are finally being connected,” says long-time immigration activist Isenberg, reflecting on the protest and news coverage.

“I honest to gosh believe that everything we have done up to now is adding up to something bigger,” says Johnson-Castro, who helped ignite protest in mid-December with a walk from Austin to the Hutto prison. In Haskell, he plans to make the most of the date and place.

“It’s Texas Independence Day and it’s the Governor’s home town,” he says. “We’re going to be looking for freedom for people who are trying to be Americans. And we are going to Gov. Rick Perry’s hometown and free the people that need to be freed, and not incarcerate them so that someone can make a profit.”

The Rolling Plains immigration jail in Haskell is managed by the Emerald Companies of Louisiana (see: emeraldcompanies.com).

Meanwhile, New York attorneys Joshua Bardavid and Ted Cox are scheduled to arrive in Dallas Wednesday morning to file federal habeas corpus motions in behalf of Suzi, Mirvat, their father, and two brothers, who have all been held at Haskell since “armed and armored officials from Immigration and Customs Enforcement conducted a middle of the night ‘raid’ ” of their home on November 2.

According to the habeas writ that will be filed Wednesday, the Hazazha family arrived in the USA with temporary visas from Jordan during the summer of 2001, and they applied for political asylum. Once the appeals for asylum had been exhausted, the family was placed under a warrant of deportation in the summer of 2005, but the family was not notified about the warrant until they were abducted during pre-election immigration raids known as “Operation Return to Sender.”

Suzi’s mother Juma and youngest brother Mohammad were released Feb. 6 from the Hutto jail only days before a media tour of that facility. But on Feb. 12 ICE filed notice that it intended to keep the rest of the family imprisoned at Haskell as “flight risks.” Where they would flee to is a good question since Jordan refuses to take the family back, while Palestine and Israel have declined to reply to requests for deportation there.

At Haskell prison, lawyers say housing units meant to house eight prisoners are frequently supplemented with sleeping bags or “boats” that allow for ten to fourteen prisoners to spend the night. When inspectors arrive, the “boats” are hidden from view.

When it comes to culturally appropriate food for Muslims, the prison serves eggs for breakfast, lunch, and supper. At prayer, the Hazahzas report they have been mocked by guards and threatened with suspension of prayer privileges.

Lawyers are only allowed to visit with prisoners for thirty minutes at a time, and only “within regular hearing distance of a stationed guard.” The three Hazahza men have never been allowed to live together “despite written requests to be united in the same, or adjacent, pods.”

17-year-old Ahmad Hazahza was placed in solitary confinement for three months because he was a minor at Haskell’s adults-only facility. When Ahmad began urinating blood shortly after his arrival, guards mocked his medical condition and “told him that he was ‘probably dying’ of a disease and that there was nothing that could be done to save him.” For ten days, his requests to see a doctor were denied.

Suzi and Mirvat spent the first 48 hours at Haskell sleeping on the concrete floor of a drunk tank, because no beds were available. They both ran high fevers for two weeks after that, and were also denied requests to see a doctor.

The sisters were “strip searched” each time they met with an outside visitor, including humiliating inspections that took place in full view of male guards “on multiple occasions.” When taken to the recreation area, they were made to “walk the gauntlet” in front of male prisoners who sexually harassed them with techniques that included exhibition and public masturbation while guards laughed.

The prison population at Haskell is a mix of immigrant detainees from Texas and felony convicts imported from Wyoming.

As with the attorneys’ previous habeas corpus motion filed in behalf of the Ibrahim family, Bardavid and Cox argue that ICE has had no legal authority to arrest or detain the family; therefore, the five Hazahzas should be immediately released.

Another family released from both Hutto and Haskell following the last Texas visit by Bardavid and Cox have been spending time on Isenberg’s schedule these days. Isenberg says he’s helping the Ibrahim family put together their immigration petitions so that they can stay and work. He says working with the family took several hours Tuesday. It’s not the first time he’s said that. And the way things look, it won’t be the last time–not for weeks to come.

GREG MOSES is editor of the Texas Civil Rights Review and author of Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Philosophy of Nonviolence. His chapter on civil rights under Clinton and Bush appears in Dime’s Worth of Difference, edited by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair. He can be reached at: gmosesx@prodigy.net.

 

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Greg Moses writes about peace and Texas, but not always at the same time. He is author of Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Philosophy of Nonviolence. As editor of the Texas Civil Rights Review he has written about racism faced by Black agriculturalists in Texas. Moses is a member of the Texas Civil Rights Collaborative. He can be reached at gmosesx@gmail.com

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