WASHINGTON -- Immigrant rights advocates who have been fasting for a week walked to John Boehner's office on Tuesday to ask, unsuccessfully, for a meeting, seeking to make their case to the House speaker that he should allow a vote on immigration reform.
They didn't get to the Ohio Republican, who works in the Capitol and not the office they visited. But they met in the hallway with spokeswoman Brittany Bramell, who listened to them speak and promised to pass on their statements. When Eliseo Medina, former secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union, asked whether Boehner could meet that day, he was met with a no.
"What about tomorrow?" he said. "Next week?"
Medina, who is 67 years old, hasn't eaten in eight days and doesn't plan to start until Boehner holds a vote on immigration reform. He told reporters he has dropped from 184 pounds to 171 pounds. He and a small group of other reform advocates have been fasting since Nov. 12, joined by others who are abstaining from food for shorter periods, and they say they will continue.
The issue of immigration has been declared dead for the year -- if not longer -- because there are few days left on the legislative calendar and Boehner said they are still working to find principles and draft legislation.
But supporters of comprehensive reform say that a bill like the one that passed the Senate in June could pass the House as well, if Boehner allowed it to go to the House floor. Yet the speaker has said he will not hold a vote on the Senate bill or allow a conference committee to combine it with House-passed legislation. There is a House bill similar to the one approved by the Senate, sponsored by a majority of Democrats and three GOP members, but Republican leadership aides have said it will not go for a vote, either.
Lisa Sharon Harper, director of mobilizing for the Christian social justice group Sojourners, began to cry on the walk to Boehner's office while talking about her hopes for reform.
"We've been working on this for so long," said Harper, who also has been fasting. "And this really is, many believe, the last window that we have coming into early January, and then after that it will get much more difficult to pass anything."
But Harper added that as an evangelical Christian, she believes in resurrection, and she and others think it could happen for immigration reform.
"I don't fast out of worry, I fast out of hope," she said.
The group left a scathing letter for Boehner, asking him why he won't act on immigration reform this year.
"While we understand and appreciate your wish to work part-time for the rest of the year while receiving the benefits of full-time employment, immigrants and working people don't have that luxury," the letter reads in part. "We have to show up and do our jobs every day, lest our pay get docked or be fired for dereliction of duty. Like us, working people, we need the House to show up and do its job. Again, as you have eloquently said, 'inaction is not an option.'"
Along with Harper and Medina, there are three other main fasters: Dae Joong Yoon of the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium, Cristian Avila of Mi Familia Vota and Rev. Samuel Rodriguez of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. The group has a constant presence in tents on the National Mall, but they are not allowed to sleep there and must continually man the space so police cannot kick them out. Supporters take shifts.
They have received visits from House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) and many others, with more to come in the following days. No Republicans have dropped by, according to organizers, but the group dropped by Rep. David Valadao's (R-Calif.) office on Tuesday to ask him to come out and speak with them. He is a supporter of the comprehensive immigration reform bill introduced by Democrats, and they told his staff that they would like to thank him.
Medina asked Bramell, Boehner's spokeswoman, when the speaker might be able to speak to them, but she wasn't able to give an answer.
She simply told them: "I can take your concerns and pass them along."
Read the full letter:
Dear Speaker Boehner:
As you may know, we have been fasting since November 12 on the National Mall. We are fasting because of the terrible toll that this broken immigration system is inflicting on immigrants, our communities and on the values of our great nation of immigrants. Last year 463 people died in the desert trying to come to America in search of the American Dream. This month, we will reach the incredible mark of 2,000,000 deportations of immigrants. Mr. Speaker, these are not just numbers. Behind each one is a real human being, with a real family who are now left to grieve and wonder about the fate of a loved one who left full of hope and optimism and were never heard from again; mothers and fathers who are left to raise their children without the support and love of their spouse who was deported and who now have to answer their children's unanswerable questions about “where is daddy?; where is mommy?; when are they coming home?”; of sons and daughters who cannot say their final goodbyes to a parent who died because they cannot travel due to their immigration status. We submit to you, Mr. Speaker, that this is an American tragedy that cries out for resolution and leadership.
Mr. Speaker, you have the unique power to end this unnecessary suffering by calling for a vote on immigration reform. You have stated that you want “the House to work its will.” Yet, you refuse to allow a vote to make that happen. Mr. Speaker, we don’t understand why that is so when you have said that “inaction is not an option.” What more proof do you need? What more needs to be said about the urgent need to address this problem? We know that you have said that there is no time in the legislative calendar to take up immigration reform. But we know that the legislative calendar was not ordained by God; mandated by the Constitution or required by a resolution adopted by a vote of the House of Representatives. This calendar is set by you – and you have the power to change or extend it at your pleasure. There are 43 days left before the end of the year, more than enough time to vote and fix this broken immigration system.
While we understand and appreciate your wish to work part-time for the rest of the year while receiving the benefits of full-time employment, immigrants and working people don't have that luxury. We have to show up and do our jobs every day, lest our pay get docked or be fired for dereliction of duty. Like us, working people, we need the House to show up and do its job. Again, as you have eloquently said, “inaction is not an option.”
Mr. Speaker, every day that goes by more people will die and more families will be torn apart. As a nation we, and you as Speaker, cannot allow this to continue. Surely our hearts and our faith require us to act to end this suffering. Every life that is lost, all children who cry themselves to sleep yearning for their father or mother, demand that we answer for our actions or inactions. We firmly believe that every person is precious in the eyes of our God. If they are precious, are they not more important than eating turkey or opening presents? Are they not worthy of enjoying the benefits and protection of our great country? Are we not called by our God to be our brothers and sisters keepers?
As Pope Francis has said, “Migrants and refugees are not pawns on the chess board of humanity.” Mr. Speaker, we believe that this is the moment, that this is our time, paraphrasing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to allow the moral arc of the universe to achieve its goal of justice. Because of the urgency of now, we humbly and respectfully request a meeting with you to discuss this matter. We can be reached at our Fast for Families tent located at the National Mall at the corner of Third and Jefferson Streets or you can call us at [redacted].
We are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to meet with you. Please let us know when we can do so. If we don't hear from your office, will follow up to arrange a meeting.
Thank you for your kind consideration of our request.