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Fasting for immigration reform: Strikers go hungry in push for change

Pete Marovich / for NBC News

Lenka Mendoza, 42, from Peru, joined the "Fast for Families" on the National Mall to compel congressional action on immigration reform legislation.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – When the hunger headaches get strong, Lenka Mendoza focuses on why she is fasting and dreams of what she would do if she won the right to legally live and work in the U.S.: She would return to her home country, Peru, to hug her cancer-stricken mom.

Mendoza, an undocumented mother of three who works as a motel housekeeper, is one of about a dozen activists fasting on the National Mall near the U.S. Capitol. The fasters want the House of Representatives to vote on legislation that would grant some 11 million undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship. The bill was approved earlier this year by the Senate but has met stiff resistance in the GOP-controlled House.

The “Fast for Families,” organized by faith, immigration and labor groups, began on Nov. 12. Four activists who went nearly 22 days without eating ended their fast last Tuesday. About a dozen others, including Mendoza, are carrying on with the strike, some fasting for one to several days at a time, others indefinitely, in the hope that they can compel Republican leadership in the House to bring the bill to a vote.

Resting in one of the group’s tents last Wednesday, Mendoza said their location near the Capitol was important because Congress holds “the power that moves this country.”

“And us being here, we are moving the power of God's hands for this country, for good things, for a good change,” Mendoza, 42, of Dumfries, Va., said in Spanish through a translator on her fourth day of fasting.

The other fasters come from various activist backgrounds: labor, faith-based (such as Franciscan clergy), immigrant rights as well as youth from a human rights group, the Dream Defenders, which is protesting laws such as the Stand Your Ground statute used to defend the fatal shooting of Florida teen, Trayvon Martin.

Pete Marovich / for NBC News

Scott Washburn, 62, speaks to fasters and supporters last week during a nightly prayer service on the National Mall.

“The time is now for us to be under this big tent and talk about the issues that affect our communities because if we keep trying to fight the battles separately, we’ll never win,” the group’s executive director Phillip Agnew, 28, of Miami, Fla., said on the second day of his fast.

The activists have had a slew of visitors, including President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, many members of Congress and some from Obama’s Cabinet. One tent is adorned with cards written by well-wishers who have stopped in (“Adelante companeros” or “Keep going, friends,” one of the missives reads), and a table is lined with items found in border areas believed to belong to migrants, including a worn sneaker.

Outside the tents, a few hundred wooden crosses dot the lawn to represent the nearly 480 people who died while trying to enter the U.S. from Mexico last year. Inside, a tally notes that since the hunger strike began on Nov. 12, 36 people have died crossing the border.

Some who visit the tents are on their way to lobby lawmakers, especially House Speaker John Boehner (his number is posted in the tent, urging visitors to phone him). The hunger strikers said Boehner has not visited them, but they keep their spirits high despite the approach of Dec. 13 -- the final day of this congressional session.

Pete Marovich / for NBC News

Rosa Maria Soto, 60, from Glendale, Ariz., was among the fasters calling for a vote on immigration reform.

Rosa Maria Soto, a 60-year-old undocumented mother from Mexico living in Glendale, Ariz., said she has faith that Boehner and others will change their position. Since coming to the U.S. 14 years ago in search of a better life for her children, she says she has lived in fear of arrest and possible deportation. Before her parents died, she couldn’t travel to Mexico to bid them a final farewell.

“As my mother was dying, she told me that it’s better that you stay with your children than come home,” Soto, of the Arizona Dream Act Coalition, said in Spanish on the fifth day of her fast. “It's been a lot of suffering, but seeing that there are many families going through the same thing motivates me to be able to contribute and fight on their behalf.”

Boehner’s office did not respond to questions on the hunger strike or the news that Rebecca Tallent of the Bipartisan Policy Center was joining his office last Wednesday to work on immigration reform in the House.  

But earlier in the week, Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said: “The speaker remains hopeful that we can enact step-by-step, common-sense immigration reforms – the kind of reforms the American people understand and support.”

The hunger strike comes after years of increasing protests and lobbying by immigration activists for lawmakers to create a legal way for undocumented immigrants to stay in the country. Last year, undocumented youth won deferred action – a reprieve from deportation proceedings for two years – by executive order. But those older than 30 weren’t eligible, leaving out parents and grandparents who can still be deported.

Pete Marovich / for NBC News

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) visits with participants of the fast last week in their tent on the National Mall.

House Republicans are opposed to an overarching, comprehensive immigration package, arguing it could end up with the challenges of Obamacare. Instead, they insist on splitting the reform into pieces to address issues like border security and employment verification separately.

The House has long maintained it will not blend any legislation it passes with the Senate’s comprehensive bill, and it’s far from clear that Boehner would defy conservative opponents of reform by bringing legislation to the House floor that would address citizenship for most of the 11 million undocumented.

Immigration activists’ hopes had been raised after the Senate passed legislation in late June that would create a 13-year path to citizenship for those undocumented immigrants who entered the U.S. before Dec. 31, 2011. House lawmakers introduced a similar bill in early October, but it has since stalled – compelling activists to try another approach.

The hunger strikers have a permit that allows them to maintain their encampment through year’s end, and there are no plans to stop the fast (some fast a few days, while others say they won’t eat indefinitely). A medical team monitors the health of the strikers and tells them when they should resume eating. The group stays at a hotel since sleeping is prohibited on the Mall.

Hunger striker Rudy Lopez, who entered his 16th day without food on Friday, joined the strike indefinitely after seeing the commitment of the initial four activists who fasted for 22 days (organizers say the four are recuperating after a brief hospital stay).

Lopez, a 43-year-old senior organizer for the Fair Immigration Reform Movement from East Chicago, Ind., has lost 20 pounds, and has endured headaches, abdominal pain and bouts of dizziness. Hunger, he said, was his constant companion. “My body is breaking down, but as that happened, my spirit keeps building up,” he said.

The group is “all proud Americans, if not through the documents we have, but the spirit we bring,” Lopez added. “And we want this country to live up to its fullness.”

NBC News reporters Carrie Dann and Suzanne Gamboa contributed to this report.


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