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Activist's fast is food for thought on immigration

The first day you fast, says Eliseo Medina, your stomach begs you to reconsider. The second day is worse.

"Your body starts asking for food," the 68-year-old local activist told me about his fast for immigration reform. "It becomes more difficult and you wonder if it's worth doing this."

But Medina's commitment is an extension of the work he began almost half a century ago, shoulder to shoulder with Cesar Chavez. So there was no letting up last fall, as he made his appeal outside the halls of power in Washington, D.C.

When his stomach growled, he drew strength from fellow fasters as they joined hands and prayed.

"After the third day, my body quit asking for food…. The amazing thing was that I needed less sleep, my mind was clear and I was able to think more clearly about what I was doing."

Medina went 22 days without eating, ending his fast only when doctors warned of possible organ damage if he continued. During Medina's fast, President Obama came out of the White House to hear his story. Congressional representatives and religious leaders made visits too.

Medina said that as he grew physically weaker, shedding more than 20 pounds, he felt spiritually stronger, lifted by the power of purpose.

"Fasting is a way to engage people in a non-threatening manner," Medina said. "When you're marching or picketing, it's confrontational and people go on the defensive. Fasting says, 'Here's what I believe, here's my faith, and I feel so strongly about it that I'm willing to sacrifice.' When that happens, people take a different attitude. It makes them begin to examine their own principles and values."

There was, of course, no immigration reform last year. And many people wouldn't bet on it happening this year either.

But Medina is back on the road in the name of the cause. He's headed east by bus with Fast for Families, meeting with supporters along the way, appealing to congressional foes of reform, and planning an April 9 rally in Washington. The fasting this time will be limited to Wednesdays, he said, so he and his cohorts have enough energy to do their work.

"I've been in this organizing business 49 years, and I have seen what it takes to make huge change," Medina said. "Deeply entrenched social policy gets turned around by people taking risks and change doesn't happen overnight."

But Medina, a Service Employees International Union official, points out that polls show majority public support for reform, even if broad differences remain over the terms. And, he noted, segments of the business community have joined religious, Asian and labor leaders in calling for a saner and more humane national policy.

There's also the view that as Latino voting power grows, the chances for a Republican president are slim until the party relaxes its opposition to reform that includes legal status for the estimated 11 million people in the country illegally.

"I tell people I've been dealing with this broken system since before I was born, when my father came to this country," Medina says.

His father worked in the fields in the bracero program and as an undocumented laborer. He eventually got his papers and sent for Medina and the rest of the family in Mexico. By then, they all had papers, but they didn't get far.

"We got pulled over in San Clemente and I remember the guy shining a light in our eyes, asking for our papers," said Medina, who was 10 at the time. The family settled in Delano, where he saw more flashlights in middle-of-the-night raids.

It's an odd dynamic. A country that desperately seeks and exploits cheap workers — regardless of whether they have papers — then harasses, demonizes and sometimes deports them.

Medina worked in the fields part-time at the age of 10, went full-time at 15 and joined forces with Chavez at 19, becoming one of the architects of the farmworker movement. One of the differences that developed between them was over the subject of immigration.

Chavez tried to block the hiring of braceros and workers in the country illegally, seeing them as a threat to organizing documented employees. Medina saw both groups as being in the same boat: powerless workers on whose backs the growers built empires. Medina went on to organize janitors and other low-wage employees, and for him, labor and immigration are linked now more than ever.

The critics of perspectives like his are many. They say unemployment would drop and wages would rise if immigrants here illegally were swept out of the country, and that there would be a savings in healthcare and education costs, among other expenses.

Medina believes most Americans respect the idea that people would flee their homelands, at great sacrifice and risk, for the chance to pass on greater opportunities to their children.

Medina argues that a pathway to legalization for current residents and controlled future immigration would elevate wages, save billions in border and deportation costs, keep families together, prevent deaths of border crossers and fortify tax revenue at a critical time. The U.S. has a soaring senior population but too small a birth rate to support Social Security, Medicare and other programs.

"From where we began, and where we are now, we're miles down the road," Medina said as he made his way east, decades into the struggle and hungering for a change.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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