How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Political leaders join LA Archbishop in 24-hour fast for immigration reform (photos)

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With the clock running out on immigration reform this year, a group of high-profile labor, faith and civic leaders from Los Angeles tried to bring urgency to the issue by joining a 24-hour fast.

Dozens of participants squeezed into a gilded chapel within the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels Tuesday morning, invited there by Archbishop Jose Gomez, himself a Mexican immigrant who advocates a pathway to citizenship for people in the country illegally.

After speeches and a group prayer, Gomez told KPCC that many of the pastors present would be asking their congregations to participate in the national “Fast for Families” campaign taking place this month. He and others described the lack of immigration reform as a moral crisis that is leading to deportations and breaking up families.

“We are inviting the parishioners at all the parishes in the archdioceses to also fast, asking God for his help to move the hearts of our elected officials in Washington so that comprehensive immigration reform happens now,” Gomez said.

Gomez was flanked by union leaders representing teachers and domestic workers, as well as LA Chamber of Commerce Chairman Alan Rothenberg. There were also politicians such as LA County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, former Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis and Congressman Henry Waxman, D-Los Angeles.

Waxman acknowledged that immigration reform was unlikely to pass this year. House Speaker John Boehner has been unwilling to negotiate with the Senate over the comprehensive immigration reform bill it passed in the summer.

“It’s probably more likely we’ll vote on this next year,” Waxman told KPCC. “We will demand a vote next year and if the vote doesn’t come up next year, then I think people will pay a price because the voters will reject them.”

But critics of comprehensive immigration reform saw the fasting as a rather empty gesture.

“It make participants feel better and feel like they're doing something to try to achieve their ends,” said Ira Mehlman of Federation for American Immigration Reform.

He doubted the fasts would win over members of the public.  "I'm not sure they're going to be moved by the fact that Henry Waxman and a few other politicians decided to skip a few meals."

Majority Backs Path to Citizenship

But surveys indicate that the majority of Americans already support immigration reform. A report released this week by the non-partisan Public Religion Research Institute showed that nearly two-thirds of the American public back a path to citizenship for people living in the US without legal status.

"The only obvious group of stakeholders that don't seem to be on board at this point are House Republicans," said Marshall Fitz, director of immigration policy the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank. "And even there we know that there are a lot of House Republicans who would vote for a bill if it were brought to the floor."

Fitz said the fasts demonstrate to those Congressional holdouts on immigration reform that "this is very safe water for them to step into, that there will be no backlash. Instead there will be strong support for them to move forward."

A number of grass-roots activists have been fasting in California and beyond. Last week, dozens of people fasted in Brea, some for as long as five consecutive days

But prominent politicians and faith leaders have also been lending their clout to the immigration reform movment. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Illinois, said she would fast in solidarity with activists.

Meanwhile, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, feminist leader Gloria Steinem and Vice President Joe Biden have visited the “Fast for Families” tent on the National Mall.

In Los Angeles, those going without food said they were fasting in the spirit of Thanksgiving later in the week. Hilda Solis, the daughter of immigrants said that it was important to immediately help the immigrants "who help put food on the table."

"They clean our offices, they stay until midnight, work graveyard shifts and help this country be prosperous," Solis said. "We do need to fast and we do need to say that those hardened hearts in the Congress and in the Senate need to change. “

But Mehlman of FAIR predicted that given all the other issues facing Congress such as the debt ceiling, Obamacare and the mid-term elections, immigration reform may get pushed back to 2015, and then "they will have to start from scratch."

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