The Washington Post

Fast for immigration reform near the U.S. Capitol enters new phase

The “Fast for Families” campaign began on Nov. 12. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Attempts to overhaul the nation’s immigration system have been stalled for months in the Republican-controlled House, where leaders are refusing to consider a bipartisan Senate proposal passed this summer. Consideration of the plan in the House — if it ever occurs — won’t come until sometime after a new budget agreement is enacted in mid-January.

That means that if Rudy Lopez and dozens of other immigration activists are true to their word, they will continue to protest and fast on the eastern edge of the Mall, just steps from the Capitol, for at least the next several weeks. The protest was launched by labor and immigration activists last month. They have set up four large tents equipped with WiFi access and a “community space” for visitors, including President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, who stopped by last Friday. Thousands of “solidarity fasters” across the country have pledge to fast for several days at a time until Congress enacts new immigration laws.

Lopez, a senior organizer with the Fair Immigration Reform Movement, showed up two weeks ago and joined the fast. His last meal was a bag of potato chips — an unhealthy choice, he admits, but he decided to fast only after he visited the site.

“We’re way beyond the point of whether this makes sense or not,” Lopez said in an interview. “There’s universal agreement that our [immigration] system doesn’t work and we need to fix it. We believe that the urgency of doing this now is more pressing than ever, and that’s why we decided to do this.”

Four protesters — Eliseo Medina of the Service Employees International Union; Lisa Sharon Harper of the District-based social justice group Sojourners; Cristian Avila, an immigration activist from Arizona; and Dae Joong Yoon of the National Korean American Service and Education Consortium — began the “Fast for Families” campaign Nov. 12. Drinking only water, they sat during the daylight hours in a heated tent and slept overnight in nearby churches and hotels in order to comply with rules forbidding people from sleeping on the Mall.

Cristian Avila is surrounded by fellow fasters Lisa Sharon Harper, left, and Dae Joong Yoon, right, Tuesday on the National Mall. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

On Tuesday, the four agreed to end their fasts on the advice of volunteer nurses and doctors. Their health had declined so much in recent days that they had declined to do media interviews.

But several other activists, including Lopez, Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners, vowed to keep the fasts going.

“This was a fast begun by immigrants themselves with no sense of what difference it would make,” Wallis said. Pointing over at the Capitol, he said: “There is one kind of power. Here’s another kind of power. They’re coming over here — Republicans, Democrats, the president, the vice president, they’re all coming here — and this place could change what’s happening there.”

Kennedy has visited the protesters several times and on Tuesday agreed to go without food until midday Wednesday.

“At this point, we need to get some movement on this bill, and whatever we can do to try to break the logjam is important, so I wanted to be a part of it,” Kennedy said.

Hoping to keep lawmakers involved in the protest, Rep. Juan Vargas (D-Calif.) plans to step in for Kennedy on Wednesday.

Frustration with the lack of progress was evident Tuesday as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) made a return visit to the tents. Motioning towards the Capitol, she told reporters that she has advised the protesters to “make your point, but understand that some of these people in the building don’t care what you do, because they’re just not going to be moved.”

But in a potential sign of progress, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) announced Tuesday that Rebecca Tallent, director of immigration policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, is joining his staff. Boehner’s office described her as “a well-known expert in this field” who will help the House “enact step-by-step, common-sense immigration reforms — the kind of reforms the American people understand and support.”

Boehner and other GOP leaders have declined requests to meet with the protesters.

Supporters of the protest have secured National Park Service permits to keep the tents erected until at least the end of the year. That allows Lopez, Wallis and others to spend time in a heated tent with seats for about 15 people who show up to fast for extended periods of time. Cases of bottled water sit nearby. An adjoining tent has work space for 20 activists and logistics specialists who dole out news releases and temporary parking passes and manage a lost-and-found bucket.

The group planned to gather Tuesday evening for a nightly prayer vigil — just a few hundred yards away from where Boehner was scheduled to light the Capitol Christmas tree.

Ed O’Keefe is covering the 2016 presidential campaign, with a focus on Jeb Bush and other Republican candidates. He's covered presidential and congressional politics since 2008. Off the trail, he's covered Capitol Hill, federal agencies and the federal workforce, and spent a brief time covering the war in Iraq.

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