Notes from the Fast for Families Tent

The Fast for Families tent, and the depth of commitment of those fasting, has become a source of power for the immigration reform movement, and proof positive that reform will prevail.

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama visit with individuals who are taking part in Fast for Families on the National Mall in Washington, Friday, November 29, 2013. (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama visit with individuals who are taking part in Fast for Families on the National Mall in Washington, Friday, November 29, 2013. (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Though the Fast for Families tent sits in the shadow of the Capitol on the National Mall, entering it is a decidedly non-Washington experience. The tent doesn’t have the pristine floors of Capitol Hill or the meticulous displays of the Smithsonian. Hand-scrawled notes on colorful paper from well-wishers line the tent walls. A makeshift altar built around a migrant’s battered shoe found in the Arizona desert is surrounded by mementos left behind by thousands of visitors. And at the tent’s core, people have stopped eating to highlight the urgent need for immigration reform.

At first, I wondered if fasting could actually influence the legislative progress. Who would listen? But now it’s been a month since the fast began, and its impact on the reform movement and on me has been profound and—I suspect—permanent. More than 200 people have fasted in the tents, and more than 10,000 have fasted across the country. The spirit of what’s possible fills every person that enters the tent. To steal a line from my hero Eliseo Medina, the former secretary-treasurer of SEIU who fasted for 22 days, “The hunger for food is great, but the hunger for justice is greater.”

The Fast for Families represents a depth of commitment to immigration reform beyond anything I’ve seen before. The four original fasters—Eliseo Medina, Dae Joong Yoon of NAKASEC, Lisa Sharon Harper of Sojourners, and Cristian Avila of Mi Familia Vota—come from different backgrounds and showcase the diversity within the immigration movement. I watched Eliseo go gaunt before my eyes, losing 25 pounds and having his hair turn completely white. I watched DJ Yoon be taken to the hospital, and then immediately return after being discharged the following day.

The tent is a source of power for the immigration movement: Its high wattage is fed by the stream of faith leaders like Bishop Gene Robinson who lead each evening’s community meeting in prayer. These gatherings end with the “passing of the fast,” as departing members hand off a simple wooden cross to new arrivals. Otherwise, each night is different: On Tuesday, Peter and Paul of Peter, Paul, and Mary sang “If I had a Hammer” and “America the Beautiful,” and the few hundred of us crammed shoulder to shoulder sang like schoolchildren. In the past month, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama have visited, while members of Congress like Reps. Joe Garcia (D-FL), Juan Vargas (D-CA), and Joe Kennedy III (D-MA) have all taken turns fasting, as have civic leaders like SEIU’s Mary Kay Henry or my friend Rudy Lopez, now on his 22nd day without food.

Ordinary people come to the tent as well. The day after DJ Yoon returned to the fast, the doctor who had been on call in the emergency room was so moved by the power of DJ’s convictions that he came to the tent with his young son. At a recent meeting, a young mother from California broke down in tears; she told the crowd that knowing how hard it was to be away from her baby must be a mere taste of what immigrant mothers who are taken from their children must feel.

Today, there are 11.7 million people in the United States without papers, and 16.6 million people living in “mixed-status” families with at least one unauthorized person and one U.S. citizen. Each day, these families go about their lives in fear that a loved one could be ripped away from them by an unjust immigration system.

But just as advocates fought and dismantled segregation and “separate but equal,” the fierce determination of the fasters on the mall tells me that the injustices facing immigrants today will also be overcome, and that it is only a matter of time before immigration reform is the new law of the land.

Angela Maria Kelley is Vice President for Immigration Policy at the Center for American Progress.

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Angela Maria Kelley

Executive Director, Center for American Progress Action Fund; Senior Vice President, Center for American Progress