New York Times
By Julia Preston
November 22, 2013
WASHINGTON — As a teenage grape picker, Eliseo Medina learned political action at the feet of Cesar Chavez. In 1968, he watched Mr. Chavez hold a 25-day water-only fast that helped transform the farm workers’ union into a nationally known force.
Since then, Mr. Medina has been at the center of debates over immigrants’ rights, arguing successfully that unions should embrace unauthorized foreign workers rather than shun them as job stealers. The tactics he learned from Mr. Chavez have stayed with him.
So there Mr. Medina was on Friday, now 67 years old, in a white tent just below the Capitol on the National Mall in the 11th day of a water-only fast he hopes will “touch the heart” of the House speaker, John A. Boehner of Ohio, and make him act on immigration.
Saying he will fast until his body gives out, Mr. Medina has lost 16 pounds; his face, sprouting a sparse beard, looks sunken and gray. But he perks up when he talks about the millions of immigrants — including many members of his organization, the Service Employees International Union, and a few of his own relatives — who are living in the country without legal papers.
“Whatever little sacrifice I am making doesn’t compare with the sacrifice these immigrants made when they came to this country for a better life and find themselves living in the shadows and being exploited,” Mr. Medina said, in cadences echoing Mr. Chavez. He wears a brown sweatshirt with the slogan “Act. Fast.” and spends his days in a padded lawn chair, quelling hunger by praying, napping, plotting political strategy and receiving a parade of visitors — including Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. on Friday morning.
But inside the Capitol, where Republican leaders in the House say an immigration overhaul is not on the agenda this year, the surly partisan mood contrasts sharply with the idealism from another era in Mr. Medina’s tent.
“I don’t think anybody in Congress is going to pay any attention to that,” said Representative Steve King, Republican of Iowa, who is a blunt-spoken opponent of legalization for those who entered the country illegally. “There are plenty of Americans who are un- or underemployed. Those hungry Americans are going to look at these open-border left liberals going hungry and they will have less sympathy, not more.”
The Senate passed a broad immigration bill in June, but the issue has fallen to the wayside in the House as lawmakers feud over health care and the budget. While Mr. Boehner insisted Thursday that immigration is “absolutely not” dead in the House, he gave no indication that he planned votes anytime soon.
“When all the traditional activities have been attempted, Eliseo believes sometimes an individual act of moral conscience can refocus the discussion at a different level,” said Andrew L. Stern, a former president of Mr. Medina’s union.
It has worked for Mr. Medina in the past. In 1974, he fasted for 14 days to press a supermarket chain in Cleveland to stop stocking produce picked by nonunion laborers, in a campaign the United Farm Workers eventually won.
And in 2006, Mr. Medina held another fast to support striking janitors at the University of Miami who were organized by the service workers’ union, which he joined in 1986. He suspended that fast after 11 days when the janitors won their contract.
“I’ve seen in my lifetime that change is possible,” Mr. Medina said. As he did in those episodes, he turned to fasting this time after other tactics failed to advance his goals.
Over the past two decades, Mr. Medina, who rose to become the second-highest official in the union, has campaigned on behalf of immigrant workers, within organized labor and in Congress.
In the 1990s, he was at the center of hard-fought debates with labor chiefs who viewed unauthorized immigrants as strikebreakers and competitors for American jobs.
Mr. Medina became an early champion of a strategy of organizing immigrants regardless of their status. His union’s membership swelled.
“Eliseo is one of the reasons why the catechism now in the labor movement is: We wish all workers would be like immigrants and join unions,” said Janice R. Fine, a professor of labor studies at Rutgers.
In no small part because of Mr. Medina, the main federations of the labor movement, the A.F.L.-C.I.O. and Change to Win, are now broadly united behind the effort for a comprehensive overhaul with a path to citizenship for immigrants in the United States illegally.
Mr. Medina expanded his reach to immigrant advocacy groups, helping them lobby Congress and organize growing protests in the country. He also devised an effort to naturalize and turn out Latino voters. His voter drives in states like Nevada and Colorado contributed significantly to President Obama’s re-election victory in 2012.
In August, Mr. Medina was arrested in an immigration demonstration on Capitol Hill. The next month, he resigned as secretary-treasurer of the service workers’ union, saying he wanted to devote his full time to winning immigration legislation.
But none of that has worked to get a House vote. Mr. Medina and other advocates argue that a bill similar to the Senate’s could pass the House, but mainly with votes from Democrats. Mr. Boehner says any legislation must have a Republican majority.
Mr. Medina is not fasting entirely alone. Since the first day he has been joined by Cristian Avila, a 23-year-old student from Phoenix, and Dae Joong Yoon, 43, executive director of Nakasec, a Korean-American group in Los Angeles. Other union leaders and volunteers have fasted with him for a few days. Mr. Medina has been joined by two daughters, a niece and a granddaughter with shorter fasts.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson stopped by the tent this week, put on a brown sweatshirt and promised to fast for three days. About 3,000 people have reported on Mr. Medina’s website that they are fasting.
Late Tuesday night, the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, arrived from California with 30 other evangelical pastors. He also looked gaunt, since he has been fasting since Nov. 4.
He takes broth once a day, but he has also kept up a full work schedule.
With Mr. Medina, a Catholic, they all went to their knees, praying for Mr. Boehner to allow a vote.
“We all have parents, relatives, friends who are impacted by this system,” Mr. Medina said. “It’s personal to us. Waiting and waiting is not an option.”
On Friday, Mr. Medina’s voice had faded to a whisper and a nurse was monitoring his vital signs.
House lawmakers were leaving town for the Thanksgiving break.
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