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Immigration Activists to Hold Lenten Fasts

Image: Eliseo Medina

Eliseo Medina, chairman of the Service Employees' International Union immigration campaign, seen here accepting an award at the Legaue of United Latin American Citizens gala Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014. He explained why he was fasting for immigration reform. Suzanne Gamboa / NBC News

While Capitol Hill largely has gone quiet on immigration reform, activity outside the Beltway is revving up to keep the issue in the forefront.

With American Christians about to begin commemoration of Lent next week, activists are re-emphasizing religious teachings on the treatment of immigrants.

Eliseo Medina, a civil rights activist and union organizer, said late Wednesday he planned to restart a fast he waged for almost 22 days last fall, hoping what he saw as spiritual sacrifice would create a political force. But rather than focus on changing the minds of House Republicans, Medina is trying to win the hearts of Americans and expand the immigration reform movement.

Lent begins this Wednesday, Ash Wednesday for Roman Catholics and Protestants and runs through April 19. Medina said he and other activists will start fasting and fast every Wednesday during Lent “to dramatize how seriously we take this issue.” He asked others to join the Wednesday fasts.

“If hundreds and then millions of us join together, people create this momentum that cannot be ignored,” Medina said at a League of United Latin American Citizens dinner in Washington, D.C.

On Monday, Medina and others began national bus tours to drum up support for immigration and to wage protests at the offices of House members. Using two bus routes, the activists planned to visit 75 congressional districts.

Medina said he was motivated to fast again after a man carrying his 6-month old daughter and his six other children entered at a community meeting in Conroe, Texas. The man related how his home had been surrounded at 6 a.m. that morning by local police and federal agents who entered his home, handcuffed his wife and took her away to be deported.

“Those children were shell shocked. You could see it in their eyes.‘What’s going to happen to my mom,’ they asked … When is she coming?” Medina said the children asked. He wore his signature brown sweatshirt emblazoned with the words "Act. Fast." to the cocktail dress, black-tie optional gala.

While Capitol Hill largely has gone quiet on immigration reform, activity outside the Beltway is revving up to keep the issue in the forefront.

The Pew Research Center reported Thursday that its latest national survey, conducted Feb. 14-23, showed 73 percent of those polled supported a way for people in the U.S. illegally to remain if they meet certain requirements. Fewer than half, 46 percent, believe those here illegally should be allowed to apply for citizenship.

About half, 49 percent, say passage of immigration legislation is extremely or very important. Nearly three quarters of Hispanics consider it extremely or very important, however, compared to 44 percent of whites and 49 percent of African Americans.

“This is a moral issue for us. We also say it is a gospel issue. For evangelicals, we have been converted by Matthew 25 and we realize now, how we treat 11 million undocumented people is how we treat Christ himself,” said Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners, a Christian social justice organization.

Wallis was referring to the following verse in the biblical chapter Matthew 25: "Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal."

Activists have a heavy lift. Roll Call has been keeping a list of Republicans who support their own principles of immigration reform and reported only 19 Republicans would confirm their support to the news outlet.

The fasts are also intended as a message to President Barack Obama by some immigration activists, who are exhorting him suspend deportations of immigrants, many who are leaving behind families.

Activists have a heavy lift. Roll Call has been keeping a list of Republicans who support their own principles of immigration reform and reported only 19 Republicans would confirm their support to the news outlet.

A group of people whose families were in a detention center in Arizona have been fasting since Feb. 17 outside the Phoenix office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, calling for the release of their family members.

According to reports, their protest was broken up by police Tuesday and some of the protestors arrested. But they have been released and the protestors are continuing their fast through March 3 and staging vigils.

“Their (Republicans') rhetorical message is that Obama is failing to enforce the law,” said Christine Neumann-Ortiz, from the Wisconsin-based Voces de la Frontera. “But on the contrary, with net zero migration and ICE quotas, enforcement at the local level is getting worse,” she said.

Her group recently sent a letter to ICE, signed by community and religious leaders, asking for a stop to alleged practices in Wisconsin of ICE agents going to courthouses, especially on interpretation days when there are Hispanic immigrants, and detaining and in some cases deporting people who were in court for misdemeanor or family court hearings or to pay traffic fines.

Advocates in other states said that Republicans who oppose immigration reform are not reflective of how the tide is changing among Republicans at the local level.

“Even though we need immigration reform at the federal level, we are reforming our broken immigration system at the state and local level,” said Maria Rodriguez, Executive Director from the Florida Immigrant Coalition.

Rodriguez said an example of this is how a group of Republicans in the state Senate are trying to persuade others in the party on the need to pass legislation allowing young immigrants not legally in the U.S. to pay cheaper in-state tuition at colleges and universities in the states where they live.

The president has been discussing using his executive authority to get past Congress on issues that have not moved. Although he has said he does not have the authority to suspend deportations, he recently said in a Google hangout if things are not getting done he would “look at all options” to make sure we have a “rational, smart system of immigration.”