“Why would anyone go without food for that many days?” Rudy Lopez shouted on the sidewalk outside the Metropolitan Detention Center, a 10-story downtown federal prison where undocumented immigrants are held for months or years before being deported.
“Well, the answer’s very simple. We do it because we believe and we know that comprehensive immigration reform needs to happen — and it needs to happen now.
Lopez was one of the core fasters in November who went without food for 22 days in a white tent on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The fast for immigration reform drew national attention when fasters were visited by President Barack and first lady Michelle Obama.
On Feb 24, the activist and other community, religious and political leaders were kicking off “Fast for Families,” a national bus tour across more than 75 congressional districts — including stops in seven key California districts — to hold prayer vigils, neighborhood meetings and press events.
The goal of the traveling two-bus movement is to get the U.S. House of Representatives to take up the bill passed by the Senate in late June last summer overhauling federal immigration laws. The bipartisan bill would create a decade-long path to citizenship for millions of undocumented residents, attract mostly skilled workers from other countries plus spell out enormous resources to secure the U.S.-Mexico border.
To date, however, House Republican leaders have refused to consider comprehensive reform. On Feb. 6, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) declared, as he did last year, that immigration legislation is unlikely in 2014. The Catholic lawmaker said the main thing holding up House action was the GOP didn’t trust President Obama to enforce immigration laws.
“Too many families are suffering,” declared Lopez. “And we’re here in front of the detention center to send a clear message that family separation is no good for America…. So we’re going to take the spirit of that tent on tour across America. And together we’re going to take that message all the way to Washington, D.C., in front of the desk of Mr. John Boehner, to urge him to pass the bill to call for a vote. Because if the bill was called today, it would pass.”
Sister of Social Service Diane Donoghue offered a blessing at the federal detention center near the Hollywood Freeway, which resembles a modish downtown office building more than a prison. She pointed out how the focus of last year’s “Nuns on the Bus” two-week tour across America was also comprehensive immigration reform.
She prayed: “Give us the courage to speak out against the broken immigration system in our country. Give us the heart to stand with the 11 million undocumented living in our country now. Help us to challenge our congressional leaders to enact a moratorium on further deportation and immigration raids.
“We say this because in a just and compassionate society we cannot continue to allow an underclass of people to keep growing at the margins,” she added. “We have to be with those who are living in constant fear of arrest without any right or reason. We ask that you continue to give us the courage to hope, to work, to fast and to act.”
n‘Worried they’ll never come back’
Processing to city hall, among the more than 300 women and men, some with their children, was former United Farm Worker activist Roberto de la Cruz with his children and grandson. He said immigration was “very personal” because some members of his extended family were either undocumented or in the process of becoming residents.
“Every time my son-in-law or daughter-in-law goes to the store or work, you know, the grandkids are always worried that they’ll never come back,” said the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) field worker. “And that’s the terror that they live with.
“The other reason is 477 people died last year in the deserts and in the drop houses. And those are people that we could actually count. But then we also have the 1,100 per day being deported. So all those things add up that we have to do something. We started this fast back in November and kept it going. And now we’re on the tour, both north and south states.”
Marching, too, was Cristian Avila of Mi Familia Vota, who also fasted on the National Mall last year. He said during his bus ride along California’s southern route, with major stops in Brea, Vista and San Bernardino, he and others (starting March 5, Ash Wednesday) will ask people to fast with them every Wednesday, or at least to skip a meal in solidarity.
“I do believe something did happen with our last fast. We did have a success,” he told The Tidings. “We revived the conversation on immigration reform. And we also revived the hope in the American people, and that’s exactly what we wanted to do. America already embraces us as citizens, and we’re just looking at Congress to do the same.
“So with this bus tour, we’re just going to keep on building the momentum we built back in November, and just keep building the pressure for Congress to act. I’m optimistic that something will happen this year.”
After stops in California, the two Fast for Families buses will continue separately for six weeks through 18 northern and southern states, visiting communities before arriving in Washington April 9 to personally deliver a new message of immigration reform on the steps of the nation’s Capital.
n‘Whatever separates families is not biblical’
In his blessing of the bus riders and their supporters at city hall, Auxiliary Bishop Alexander Salazar asked for God’s presence in the “spirit of prayer.” The director of the Los Angeles Archdiocese’s Office of Life, Justice and Peace pointed out that fasting has always been an abiding tradition of the Church.
“Even the Lord fasted for 40 days and 40 nights before beginning his ministry,” he pointed out. “Fasting is the soul of prayer, as mercy is the lifeblood of fasting. No one should try to separate them. They cannot be separated. If you have one without the other, you have nothing….
“And so we fast to be in solidarity, to be united as a people — to be united as people wanting to have just immigration reform. Whatever separates families is not biblical. Whatever separates us from one another is not the way to go. Families are the building blocks of society. We need laws that will reform and bring families together in peace and unity in this great nation.
“Let us ask the Lord to hear our prayer,” the bishop urged, “that our hunger may also stimulate the hunger for prayer to be in solidarity with each other united as a people of God.”
The head of CHIRLA (Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles), one of the host committees of the Fast for Families procession and send-off, echoed Bishop Salazar’s remarks about the morality of breaking apart and separating undocumented families. Angelica Salas said the present immigration system is “all enforcement and no humanity.”
“For years we have organized and worked to gain the support for immigration reform from every single sector of American society,” she said. “And yet, the Republican leadership has decided to stand with the minority xenophobic wing of its party and refuse to give us a vote, a fair vote for reform for our immigration laws.
“Today we launch the Fast for Families bus tour that will engage thousands of Americans to our cause. And together with this action and many more to come, we will show Congress the courage that we have, and build the political and moral power to force Congress to act now. We will not waiver for our future is at stake, and we have come too far to give up now.”