Activists end fast without an immigration vote; new fasters take over

They tried to put the best face on it. They called the end of the nearly 22-day fast “passing the baton” and surrounded it in religious symbolism and protest songs.

But Tuesday’s ceremonies attended by many VIPs and marking the official end of the fast didn’t change the reality that 21 1/2 days of three individuals going without food and of a fourth person restricted to juice, did not move GOP House leaders to call a vote on immigration reform.

“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,” Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, said Tuesday.

Boehner’s office also announced he had hired an immigration expert who has advised other Republicans who support immigration reform.

The activists who have been staging their fast daily in the shadow of the Capitol called it quits Tuesday because of their worsening health. They broke their fast by taking swatches of bread from the same loaf and sips of juice from the same cup given to them by a cleric as would occur in a religious service.

Six replacements took up a new indefinite fast. A seventh is joining in for a day.

Three of the initial fasters have been subsisting since Nov. 12 on water alone: Eliseo Medina of the Service Employees International Union; Dae Joong Yoon, executive director of the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium and Cristian Avila, of Mi Familia Vota. A fourth, Lisa Sharon Harper of Sojourners, restricted her diet to juice. They each lost an average of 20 pounds or more by the time they ended their organized starvation.

Three weeks is generally the maximum most people can go without food. As soon as the ceremony ended, the original fasters were taken to a local hospital for checks on their health. Later Tuesday evening, organizers issued a statement saying Medina, Yoon, Avila and Harper were being monitored at George Washington Unviersity Hospital and provided fluids to rehydrate them.

Yong already had been taken to the hospital, a fact organizers did not advertise, over Thanksgiving weekend, but he was back at the ceremony Tuesday.

“Bless those who are finishing their fast today and protect and be with those who are beginning their fast,” Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of the Washington Archdiocese prayed. “May their acts of sacrifice inspire the elected leaders of our nation to act on behalf of immigrants and their families,” he said.

Although the House is back in session, there is little expectation of an immigration bill before Congress shuts down for the year, likely as soon as next week.

The hour-long fast breaking and renewing ceremony drew a bevy of VIPs. Although immigration is often cast as a Latino issue, none of those seated in the front row of a VIP section were Latino. Democratic Illinois Rep. Luis Gutierrez stood nearby and National Council of La Raza president Janet Murguia were among the group, as well as Labor Secretary Tom Perez.

Also attending were House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.; civil rights movement veteran Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga.; and the Rev. Al Sharpton.

The new fasters also are a diverse group. The Rev. Gabe Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition is the sole Latino among the new set of fasters. The remaining fasters who took over are the Rev. Jim Wallis, Sojourners president; Ciara Taylor, political director of Dream Defenders; the Rev. Eunsang Lee, pastor of First United Methodist Church of Salt Lake City; Stephen Bauman, president and CEO of World Relief and Phillip Agnew, executive director of Dream Defenders.

Rep. Joe Kennedy, D-Mass., is fasting for 24 hours and “took over” for Medina. Kennedy is the grandson of Robert F. Kennedy who was on hand to help Cesar Chavez break his 25-day fast in the 1960s over farmworkers rights.

The original fasters passed on the task of going without food by removing crosses made from wooden sticks and twine from around their necks and putting them around the necks of those taking their places.

Salguero said he had received an email when the first fast was launched that asked whether he and other Hispanic evangelicals would join in the fast. “I said if we wouldn’t join we wouldn’t be Christian,” Salguero said.

Some said they saw a larger issue of civil rights in the fasters’ campaign. Bernice King, daughter of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., quoted her father at the event. Her father had sent a telegram to farmworker rights leader Cesar Chavez while he fasted on the workers’ behalf.

“My father once said, ‘There comes a time when the cup of endurance runneth over.’ Our brothers and sisters who have been locked out of a pathway to citizenship have endured enough,” Bernice King said.

Agnew called on young people at Howard University and at Georgetown to join in the fast. (Some people have joined for a day or two at a time to show support). He said he and other members of Dream Defenders, which has organized around the killing of Trayvon Martin, had come from Florida. Although they are African-Americans and non-immigrants, “we are all in debt in this cause,” Agnew said.

“As we talk about immigration, we should talk about mass incarceration and the war on drugs … If our oppressors are linked then must our liberation be linked,” Agnew said.

Other protests are continuing, several immigrant children planned a silent protest at the Capitol Christmas tree lighting that Boehner oversaw. But police kept the kids at a distance so the children sang Jingle Bells with the lyrics changed while their parents chanted protests.

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