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HARRISONBURG, Va. — The political staffer looked perturbed as 20 immigration activists, all clad in brown sweatshirts with the words “Act. Fast,” filed out of their charter bus one by one and crammed into Rep. Bob Goodlatte’s district office.
Some had been on the road for a full six weeks, collectively logging 14,000 miles, crossing 31 states and stopping in more than 80 congressional districts on a cross-country bus tour that had commenced in Los Angeles. They had politely and persistently made the case for immigration reform to any lawmaker (but mostly staff members) who would listen, and on a wet spring day this week, their journey had led them to the foggy hills of the Shenandoah Valley.
So goes the grueling, often glacially slow struggle for those who have dedicated not just six weeks but months, years and decades of their lives to immigration reform — a mission like a mirage, one that has been as elusive as it seems tantalizingly close.
Even though Goodlatte had declined to schedule a meeting with the activists — as had many of the moderate Republicans the bus tour had targeted — they forged ahead with Eric Bagwell, a district representative with a boyish face, taking turns to outline their political and moral arguments.
Sharon Stanley, a pastor who works with immigrants and refugees in Washington but grew up in the area, said she could think of no issue that dovetailed as well with the Christian values that were so much a part of the fabric of Goodlatte’s Sixth District.
“There are more Christians here than cows,” she said. “My own faith tells me in the Book of Leviticus to treat those who have come to live among us with justice, and it says specifically to treat them as citizens and with the kind of love that motivates this movement.”
Others urged the congressman to lay aside political maneuvering for a moment and think instead of the people who are in the crosshairs of the United States’ current immigration policies.
"Representative Goodlatte is a politician, we all understand that," said Lisa Sharon Harper, a member of the Christian social justice organization Sojourners. "But fundamentally, this is not about politics, this is about people."
The leader of their group, Eliseo Medina, a longtime labor organizer who left his job with the Service Employees International Union in 2013 to focus full time on immigration, stressed that the activists had come to Goodlatte’s office not out of aggression but in an effort to reignite a productive conversation.
“We want to be helpful, we want to be able to understand what [Goodlatte’s] thoughts are,” he said. “We want to understand really what his thinking is in terms of when and how. We also have some ideas about how to fix this, because none of us want to be back in this situation in 20 years.”
Bagwell was unmoved.
“I can’t speak for the congressman, but any new information is on the House Judiciary’s website or the congressman’s website,” he said.
So the activists thanked him for his time and for delivering the letters and petitions they had brought with them from Goodlatte’s constituents, piled back on the bus and headed for their next destination to do it all over again.
Reform advocates feel they have never been nearer to reaching their goal. They have a Democratic president who has made immigration reform a top second-term priority; a comprehensive immigration bill that passed in the Senate with bipartisan support last summer; a broad coalition at their backs that includes supporters as varied as labor, business groups, faith leaders and law enforcement officials; and public opinion on their side. What they don’t have: immigration reform, thanks largely to a GOP-controlled House of Representatives reticent to move on an issue that stokes fierce passions among its conservative base.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has said the Senate bill, with its pathway to citizenship, is unpalatable to his caucus and that Republicans favor a piecemeal approach, but there’s been no movement on any smaller bills either.
Frustrated by the standstill at the end of last year, Medina and a small band of allies erected a tent in front of the Capitol weeks before Thanksgiving and began a public fast, serving as a physical reminder to lawmakers exiting their office buildings that the issue was not forgotten. For 22 days, they subsisted solely on water.
They were so weak at the end of three weeks that upon breaking their fast, they were immediately taken to George Washington Hospital to be pumped full of nutrients.
“Some people mischaracterize what we’re doing as a hunger strike,” explained Rudy López, one of the original fasters and political director for the organization Center for Community Change. “A hunger strike ends when you either get what you want or you die. A fast is really to lift up the issue to create a space for dialogue and awareness and mutual understanding. It’s through our small sacrifice — going without food — that we open up a curiosity. People say, ‘Why are you doing that?’”
The dramatization of the immigration struggle worked in part: President Barack Obama and the first lady dropped in on the fasters the day after Thanksgiving, spotlighting their cause. And Boehner — despite declining repeated meeting requests with them — signaled in the following weeks that the House would be willing to move on reform within the next year. At the House Republican caucus retreat earlier this year, he released a set of principles to guide the members’ thinking on potential legislation.
But then, as quickly as the reformers’ hopes had been revived, they were dashed again. House leadership gingerly backed away, with members saying they did not trust the president to enforce border enforcement provisions and reiterating that a midterm election year was not the time to take on reform.
Stall and start. Stall and start. It’s the rhythm these activists have become accustomed to.
But Medina and the fasters were not ready to lick their wounds or wait for the political winds to change. Although other immigration activists have turned their attention to pressuring the Obama administration to halt its breakneck pace of deportations, Medina and his ilk are still focused on a legislative solution.
Keeping in mind the spirit of the original fast, they launched the “Fast for Families” bus tour at the end of February to take their message, and passion, on the road.
In addition to visiting dozens of congressional offices and fasting at various junctures on the road, the group spends long days meeting with local officials about the path forward and hosts nightly events where members of the local communities share often searing testimonials about lives turned upside down by the current system.
Depending on one’s level of cynicism and view on immigration, Medina and his merry band of supporters — many of them affiliated with faith-based organizations — could be viewed as either admirably plucky or just delusional.
Can fasting change political reality, after all? Republicans continue to control the House of Representatives. Members in conservative districts remain beholden to their constituents, for many of whom immigration reform continues to be unpalatable. Boehner still shows no inclination to bring the Senate bill to the House floor.
It’s fortunate these fasters have a deep faith in resurrections.
“We’ve been declared dead so many times, we’re like Lazarus,” Medina said, smiling, referring to the biblical figure brought back to life by a miracle performed by Jesus. “We keep coming up.”
A few hours after their meeting with Goodlatte’s staff, Medina held up a disintegrating shoe as he spoke to a crowd of about 100 gathered in the Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Harrisonburg.
The shoe, Medina told the gathering, was found on a body at the U.S.-Mexico border.
“We don’t know who this shoe belonged to,” he said. “What we do know is that this person died alone, they died hungry, they died with no one to hold their hand. We know that if we don’t do something, more people will die like this.”
Medina admits that what he and his fellow activists are trying to do is a task no less monumental than “touching the heart of Congress” — a gridlocked body that has maddened nearly everyone trying to enact substantial policy changes over the past four years.
“We’re not giving up on the humanity on the Republicans, because if we do that, we do the same thing that they’ve done to us,” he said in an interview with Al Jazeera. “I still think what’s driving them is fear of the politics, not the optimism and the hope this country represents. They’ll come around.”
Organizations trying to influence policy in the modern big-money era often use outsize checks to get their point across — and indeed, labor unions, business groups and the tech industry have put the force of their money behind immigration reform.
Medina and his fasters are relying on old-fashioned techniques: inundating members of Congress with letters, signatures, phone calls and testimonials from constituents, making clear that they are not going to disappear.
At the community meeting in Harrisonburg, water bottles were labeled with the phone numbers to reach Goodlatte’s office.
When a 13-year-old girl at the event began sobbing as she told the story of how her mother was deported, Cristian Avila, the youngest of the fasters at only 23, felt he could relate.
Avila and his parents are undocumented immigrants themselves, living in Phoenix. Although he has been granted a deportation deferral offered to some qualifying young illegal immigrants under an Obama administration executive action, he constantly fears for the safety of his parents.
The thought of them being picked up by immigration authorities while he is away haunts him.
“That’s a fear that doesn’t go away until we have a permanent solution,” he said.
If ever granted legal status, Avila aspires to join the military and be a Marine.
“I’m angry, I’m very angry, but I try to direct my anger where it’s going to be useful and I try to use my anger for strength rather than emotion,” he said. “Everywhere we go we hear heartbreaking stories that really tear your heart apart, but they also give you the strength to keep going. And each of those stories is another reason not to give up.”