JOURNEY TO TEXAS: Pilgrimage Forges a Path of Protest

Chizu Omori holds a strand of cranes folded by San Quentin prisoners. Tens of thousands of cranes were folded by groups from around the country to help create a symbol of solidarity to be displayed at the rally. (Photos by MARTHA NAKAGAWA)

First of three parts

By MARTHA NAKAGAWA, Rafu Contributor

More than 60 people from across the United States participated in a historical pilgrimage to Texas from March 29 to April 1 that included a memorial service at the former World War II Crystal City Department of Justice camp; a protest rally at the Dilley Detention Center; a meeting with Texas legislators; and a visit to a sanctuary church.

The event attracted press coverage from all over the country and from Japan.

One immediate outcome of the pilgrimage resulted in the ad hoc Crystal City Pilgrimage Committee being invited to the San Francisco Mayor’s Immigrant Rights Commission for a meeting.


Satsuki Ina, from Sacramento, a former Tule Lake and Crystal City incarceree who spearheaded what she referred to as “a small but mighty committee,” said the inspiration for this pilgrimage started about four years ago when she was contacted by Carl Takei, a Yonsei attorney with the ACLU whose grandparents had been imprisoned at the Tule Lake Segregation Center.

Takei had been so bothered by what he witnessed at the Karnes County Residential Center that he had asked Ina to join him for a visit and requested her opinion, as a psychotherapist, of the sort of trauma the children were being exposed to.

After Ina walked through the Karnes detention center, she concluded: “We’ve got to take these prisons down. They’re inhumane, and they need to be taken down.”

Since then, Ina has returned a few more times to Texas and an ad hoc Crystal City Pilgrimage Committee was formed to organize a combined memorial service at the former World War II DOJ camp at Crystal City and to hold a peaceful protest rally at the Dilley detention center, a few miles from Crystal City, to oppose the indefinite imprisonment of families with minors and the separation of children from their parents.

Assisting the Crystal City Pilgrimage Committee was Grassroots Leadership, an Austin, Texas-based organization that works to reform immigration and criminal justice policies and works with those impacted by detention and deportation.

Bob Libal, Grassroots Leadership executive director, felt that the presence of the Japanese American community, six of whom were Crystal City survivors, was historical.

“I think that the voice in which you all are coming with are incredibly powerful, and it’s going to be heard by people who are inside (Dilley),” he said.

According to Libal, the Dilley Detention Center is the largest immigration detention center in the U.S. with 2,400 beds for women and children.

“Children as young as babies have been detained there as recently as the last few weeks,” said Libal. “Pregnant detainees are something we have seen recently, including pregnant girls under the age of 18, who continue to be detained.”

Libal added that these immigration detention centers were being run by for-profit corporations.

“This facility is operated by the world’s largest for-profit prison corporation, which is called Corrections Corp. of America, that signed a billion-dollar contract to operate it, so the detention of immigrant families is both a moral abomination and very big business,” said Libal.

He, like those on the pilgrimage, felt that it was time to shut down detention centers.

“We’re a nation that has normalized locking people up for everything, from addiction to homelessness to poverty to mental health issues,” said Libal. “So we really see this as part of a fight to build a healthier and a more just community for immigrants and for other people of color and for those without the means to stay out of jail.”


About two weeks before the pilgrimage, Mike Ishii spearheaded a campaign to have 10,000 folded cranes sent to the Grassroots Leadership office to be used at the protest rally as a symbol of solidarity.

More than 25,000 tsuru appeared at the Grassroots Leadership office, with many more boxes still being delivered. As of the pilgrimage, more than 150 boxes of tsuru had been delivered to Grassroots Leadership but that number could top 200 boxes.

The folded cranes came from all across the U.S. and Japan, including some from San Quentin State Prison.

Kathy Kojimoto said June Hamamoto was responsible for the tsuru from San Quentin. “June teaches a class at San Quentin,” said Kojimoto. “They did this during their free time or so-called rec time to make these cranes specifically for this event.”

Natasha Varner from Seattle-based Densho offered to help digitize and document the pilgrimage.

Members of Bande Folklorico perform for the pilgrims.


Nancy Ukai, a descendant of a Topaz (Central Utah) War Relocation Authority (WRA) camp incarceree, spearheaded the program at the former Crystal City camp, where Japanese Americans, Japanese Latin Americans, German Americans and German Costa Ricans had been incarcerated during World War II.

Grace Shimizu, from the Bay Area, who has been heading the Japanese Peruvian Oral History Project and Campaign for Justice for decades, gave a brief background on Crystal City.

“We’re going to a set of camps that usually people don’t really know about in the general society, but even within the Japanese American community, we don’t know that much about,” she said. “And for a time, people here were seen as having stigma, that there must’ve been something wrong with them because they were picked up first.

“And it’s only because of hard work that our community has done to uncover our own history that we’ve begun to see the diversity of the experiences that our community went through and to see how complex the whole process was that the government was trying to do when it identified the people here as ‘enemy aliens.’”

During the war, the Crystal City DOJ camp imprisoned more than 2,200 people of Japanese ancestry from 13 Latin American countries to be used in hostage exchanges between the U.S and Japan.

In addition, the U.S. government sent Japanese American mothers and their children incarcerated in WRA camps to Crystal City to be reunited with their husbands/fathers, who had been detained at other DOJ camps.

On the bus ride to Crystal City, Kenya Gillespie shared a short Crystal City documentary film he had done as a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, where he now teaches. Gillespie grew up in Kansas with a father who is of Scottish descent and a post-war immigrant mother from Japan.

“For my grad degree, we were required to do a documentary on any subject of our choice, and I was doing some research and found out about this camp,” said Gillespie. “I had no idea that something like this had existed in Texas. And when I visited the Crystal City site, I thought I have to do a documentary on this subject.”

Several Crystal City elected officials welcomed the pilgrims at Crystal City, including Imelda Salinas, superintendent of the Crystal City Independent School District (ISD); Joel Barajas, Crystal City mayor pro tem; and Councilmember Michelle Ruiz.

In addressing the pilgrims, Ruiz said, “You’re part of history here, so you’re a part of Crystal City.”

Roberto Velasquez, who has worked for the ISD for 42 years, led a short tour of the site, which he also does for former German and Costa Rican German incarcerees who visit the site.

Velasquez, the son of migrant workers, attended the segregated school on the former Crystal City DOJ site, in the same building as those who had been incarcerated during the war. “I sat on some of the same desks that you or your ancestors did,” he said.

The school building was torn down during the 1960s, but Velasquez said that in 1982, he rummaged through some construction rubbish and found an old desk.