By Greg Moses
The night before his five-day walk to protest immigrant prisons of the Rio Grande Valley, Jay Johnson-Castro drove to Los Fresnos to get an advance glimpse of International Educational Services, Inc. (IES).
“Where’s the school?” he asked, as a guard approached him in the parking lot.
“What school?” said the guard, explaining that IES was a detention center for “young adults” whose mothers were being held at the nearby Port Isabel Immigrant Detention Center.
When Johnson-Castro explained that he was against prisons for children, the guard replied that IES wasn’t really a prison.
“Can they go to the mall?” asked Johnson-Castro.
“No,” replied the guard.
“Can they go to the theater?”
“Can they dress the way they want to?”
For the third time, “no.”
“If they can’t get out,” Johnson-Castro asked the guard, “what do you think it is?”
On his walks Wednesday and Thursday, Johnson-Castro heard from local folks that the IES facility holds about 100 boys and 60 girls who have been picked up with–and separated from–immigrant parents. If the children turn 18 years old they are transferred to an adult jail.
“One source who has been inside told us there could be worse places for the children,” said Johnson-Castro. “At least they are fed and clothed. But they are also very sad because they are not free. They are prisoners.”
“IES was the forerunner to the T. Don Hutto prison camp in Taylor, Texas,” explains Johnson-Castro. “They built Hutto in order to keep the children with their mothers, but IES is still here, still holding children separately. We still have the problem that Hutto was supposed to fix.”
Inside are Mexican children arrested near the Mexico border, but also a child from Brazil, and one from Korea. One source reported seeing a 16-year-old girl pregnant. When did the girl get pregnant? Who is able to speak Portuguese or Korean?
“We keep unfolding things,” says Johnson-Castro. “The more we ask, the more we have to ask.” For example, why are there sixty cars in a parking lot outside a prison for 160 children? If IES is not a school inside, what kind of education is being provided? If activists are troubled by the imprisonment of children at Hutto, why are they not raising issues about IES?
An Internal Revenue Service Form 990 posted online in pdf format shows that IES had a budget of $5.6 million dollars in 2004. As far as Johnson-Castro is concerned, the budget is what drives the operation.
“Sixty cars and 160 kids?” he asks. “There are a lot of families dependent for their livelihood on the imprisonment of children. And the cost of all this is that we lose our morality and conscience when we imprison children or any human being for money. And who wants it that way? The people who profit want it that way—not the rest of us.”
As with his walk to the Rolling Plains prison of Haskell, Texas, Johnson-Castro was treated to a police escort on the first day of his walk. First, the Brownsville Police, then Los Fresnos police. And on the second day, when Johnson-Castro completed the walk from IES to the Port Isabel Immigrant Detention Center, he found swarms of mosquitoes and a half dozen federal cars waiting for him at a blockaded gate.
The protest walker had been walking alone all day, without a single reporter or photographer. But there were three cars that had fallen in behind the truck of John Neck who always follows Johnson-Castro to keep him protected from traffic. So the feds had the protesters outnumbered.
“Don’t tell me you did all this for us,” said Johnson-Castro to a federal guard at the Port Isabel gate.
“Yes, we did, sir,” replied the guard.
“Well, I’m complimented. One guy walking alone.”
“Anytime you have something like this we have to take precautions. You can’t go in there.”
“No way I want to go in there willingly. I’m here to bring attention to you. This may not look like a real big event, but before you know it, what’s happening here will be known. Do you know why we’re here?”
“Yes sir, I’ve been told.”
That’s when Johnson-Castro reminded the guard, there was a time when it was legal to buy and sell human beings. “This is just a 21st Century version,” explained Johnson-Castro, the man that the Rio Grande Guardian calls Quixotic. In place of plantations we now have prisons. And it’s all done for profit.
“Can I talk to the prisoners?”
“Can the media talk to the prisoners?” (A Quixotic question today.)
“So where are the freedoms of speech or press? Where are these inalienable rights guaranteed by the Constitution? And why are these rights being denied to these people in a country that is supposed to be free?”
When the guard deferred the question as something that should be addressed to other federal officials at another time, Johnson-Castro replied: “This includes you.”
Not far from the prison gate at Port Isabel is a housing development for federal guards in training, but for reasons unknown the guards don’t live there now. Nobody does. The houses are all boarded up with plywood.
For Johnson-Castro and his friend John Neck, the empty houses are a sure sign of what’s not being done right. Locked up in the immigrant prisons are painters, landscapers, and carpenters. “Give us this place for the immigrants who are now in prison, and we’ll make a city out of this.”
On Friday, day three, Johnson-Castro and John Neck take their steady caravan into Harlingen on their way toward the infamous Raymondville tent city prison camp, where they plan to arrive for a 1:00 pm vigil on Sunday. The walk did get advance coverage on KGBT-TV, so the people of Harlingen should be prepared for what they are about to see.