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Immigration Activists Push For Reform With Water-Only Diet


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Later this hour, we're going to spend some time talking about money management in the season of giving. We'll talk about some of the scams that always seem to crop up at this time of year, and we'll talk about how you can spot them and avoid them.

But first, we want to talk about an issue that's been a very important part of public debate for many years now, but one that activists are hoping will have new urgency in the holiday season. We're talking about immigration reform. And a group of activists have now been fasting to try to revive efforts to bring an immigration bill forward. Just a day after Thanksgiving, President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama visited a group of those activists who have been refusing food, some of them for many days, hoping to pressure Congress to act on immigration. This movement is called Fast for Families. And one of those fasters is with us at the moment. His name is Rudy Lopez. He's on this 13th day of refusing all food and drink except for water. He's a senior organizer for Fair Immigration Reform, which is based in Washington, D.C. And he's here with us in Washington, D.C. Rudy Lopez, thank you for joining us.

RUDY LOPEZ: Thank you. My pleasure.

MARTIN: And for additional perspective, we've call NPR correspondent Ted Robbins. He's in Tucson, Arizona and he's been reporting on immigration and border security. Ted, thank you so much for joining us also.

TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: You're welcome, Michel.

MARTIN: So, Rudy Lopez, we were talking earlier, and you were telling me this isn't your first fast but this is the first time you've refused all food except for water.

LOPEZ: For water.

MARTIN: Food and drink except for water. Do you mind if I ask how you're doing?

LOPEZ: I'm tired. I'm obviously hungry. You feel the effects. It's interesting how your body transforms over that time, the different stages it goes through.

MARTIN: Why did you decide to do this? And I - forgive me, I would be remiss if I did not ask how far are you prepared to go?

LOPEZ: I'm going to go until either Speaker Boehner allows the vote to be called, which is in his power to do so - and we can talk more about that in a second - but I'm going to go until that happens or 'til my body cannot continue.

MARTIN: Which means what?

LOPEZ: Until the doctors say that I will put myself in permanent harm, which we don't want to do.

MARTIN: And so why? Why this?

LOPEZ: A fast because it really, I think, puts us in touch and be able to create more awareness with the suffering that's taking place because of the broken system. I personally got involved...

MARTIN: You're an American citizen.

LOPEZ: I am.

MARTIN: You were born here.

LOPEZ: I am. I'm not an immigrant myself, but I grew up in an immigrant household. My house served as a port of entry for many of my family members who did come here undocumented. And I grew up seeing the effects that that takes on somebody. Seeing them not being able to witness the birth of their children, not being able to celebrate important holidays or birthdays and not being able to go back and bury loved ones. And that affects you. Particularly, in 2005, I lost a cousin who came over the border to find work in Houston. He came with a group of others, and through the assistance of a coyote - a human smuggler - that they hired. My cousin, Martin Hernandez (ph), got sick along the way. The coyote left him behind.

MARTIN: He was abandoned?

LOPEZ: He was abandoned. And...

MARTIN: And died there?

LOPEZ: ...He was left with two things - a gallon of water and a promise that they would come back for him, a promise that they didn't keep. So it's because of stories like Martin, my cousin, and his death and so many other thousands of other people that die, and the millions that are suffering because of our system, that I'm here.

MARTIN: I'm speaking with Rudy Lopez, he is fasting for immigration reform. He's on the 13th day of a water-only fast. Let's hear from Ted Robbins now. Where does this bill stand? I mean, this - there was so much discussion around this earlier in the year. It seemed at one point that there was real momentum behind it. What happened now?

ROBBINS: Let's look at some perspective. A year ago, in fact, after the elections it was at the top of the agenda. Then came gun reform - which was talked about for months after Sandy Hook - you know, the sequester, the shutdown, health care rollout, Syria. Amid all that, the Senate passed a comprehensive bill in June with bipartisan support. And then it has so far gone nowhere in the House. Congressional House Republicans have said they don't want a comprehensive bill. They want to sort of take it in parts. They want to...

MARTIN: And why is that?

ROBBINS: Because there are parts of it they approve of and parts of it they don't approve of, is the line. Whether it's border security and enforcement of immigration laws, whether it's reforming the current system so that there can be a guest worker program. And then there's the sticking point, I think, which is the legal status for the current unauthorized immigrants. Whether there's a pathway to citizenship involved in the bill, which the Senate bill does provide. And there are a number of House Republicans who don't approve of that.

MARTIN: The president has also come in for criticism, Ted Robbins. I mean, at a public event last week, for example, he was interrupted by hecklers who said that he could use his own executive authority just to stop the deportations, which are at a record high. And he says that he - or to advance a number of elements here. And he says that he does not have that authority. Ted, can you sort that out? Can you tell us...

ROBBINS: Well, as far as I can...

MARTIN: Separate fact from fiction?

ROBBINS: Yeah, as far as I can tell, he doesn't have the authority to do many of the things that he's being asked for. Now having said that, I mean, he has - I think part of the reason that the young people who challenged him last week are saying that is he has done a number of things. I mean, he has - he started the DACA plan - Deferred...

LOPEZ: Deferred Action.

ROBBINS: Yeah, thank you - Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals in June of last year. You know, since then, 560,000 - as of August, which were the last numbers we had - young people have been granted deferral from deportation and a work permit. So he did that and then last - a couple of weeks ago he announced that spouses and family members of those serving in the military who happened to be undocumented would get deferrals. So, you know, he's doing small, incremental executive steps. But I do not think, as far as my research shows, that he can undertake a heck of a lot more in terms of actual policy reform without the help of Congress.

MARTIN: Do you have an opinion about that, Rudy Lopez?

LOPEZ: Well, we certainly do. And it's an opinion we expressed when the president and the first lady came to visit us the day after Thanksgiving and - which was a great visit, which we really appreciate - but we also impressed upon him the need to be able to do more. He doesn't have the executive authority to stop the deportations himself, and that's correct, but he can set guidelines. And this is the thing, he already has.

Prosecutorial discretion is something that he put in place a couple of years ago, with the Department of Homeland Security, to be able to use their discretion as to who they detain and who they deport. And it was primarily focused on people who have serious crimes. Many of the people who are being deported are people who have traffic violations. If DHS would impose those guidelines, they would drastically reduce the number of people who are being detained and deported.

MARTIN: Can I just ask you, though, Rudy Lopez, I mean, the president made clear that he agrees with you and that he would like the law to change, as do a number of other people - Democrats mainly, but also some Republicans. What's your message to people who don't agree with you?

LOPEZ: I want to make clear what passed through the Senate and is in front of the House in H.R. 15 is not amnesty. Everyone that would go through that would pay a fine, go to the back of the line, background checks, etc. So there is certainly a penalty for them coming here the way they did.

MARTIN: But on the bigger issue, that they just do not agree...

LOPEZ: Sure. No...

MARTIN: That is an - which is why the bill has not advanced to this point.

LOPEZ: Well, I don't think that that's true. I believe all the major polling shows that the majority of the American public is with us. We have enough votes right now to pass H.R. 15. We have enough commitments from the Republicans - we need 217, we have beyond that.

MARTIN: Say what H.R. 15 is.

LOPEZ: H.R. 15 is essentially the Senate bill that was passed that would provide a pathway to citizenship, along with all the other things I described, that would address in a comprehensive way how to solve this problem or to be able to move forward with it. It's not a perfect bill - no bill is. But we think it's a really good start to move forward. And that's one of the reasons we're urging people to support it. At the same time, we understand that Speaker Boehner, as you noted, and many Republicans, want to take this step-by-step and piece-by-piece.

We don't believe that that's the best approach because all these different issues - enforcement, etc. are all connected to one another. However, we're concerned more about the outcome than the process. So we're willing to be able to sit down and have a conversation. That's why we're inviting people - the speaker himself and other members of Congress - to come to the tent, to sit down with us. We want to find a common ground.

MARTIN: Have any Republicans come to visit you?

LOPEZ: Yeah, we have. We've had Congressman Valadao, who came from California, as well as Congressman Denham. And just yesterday, Lleana Ros-Lehtinen from Florida came to visit us as well, which was really fantastic. And she also was able to recognize us on the House floor last night.

MARTIN: Ted Robbins, do you have any sense that demonstrations like this fast, which has been joined by a number people around the country - it's not just happening in Washington, is having an effect on the policymakers here?

ROBBINS: Well, I think at the very least, it's keeping it in the front of peoples' mind by coverage. But let me back up a little because, for some perspective, it's everybody, on all sides, agrees that the system is broken. And there is widespread support. And I don't think you'd get any argument on it. There are religious groups - you know, evangelicals, the Catholic Church, there's The Chamber of Commerce - The United States Chamber of Commerce, there are Republicans like Jeff Bush and Chris Christie. I think one of the things that's going on is that, you know, you've got district politics and then you've got national politics. And this may be a winner on national politics, but so far, apparently, what you've got to push, I think, are the people in that - on those congressional levels that are blocking a vote.

LOPEZ: Yeah.

MARTIN: Rudy Lopez, finally, before we - this is - we're down to our last minute. You have told us that you are not prepared to do permanent harm to yourself because...

LOPEZ: No, nobody is.

MARTIN: ...That is not the point. And nobody is. If a bill does not advance in the Congress, will this have been worth it?

LOPEZ: Oh, certainly, I think for all the reasons that Ted just talked about. And this isn't something that's going to end here, regardless of what happens to any of us here. We're going to continue to escalate. And we feel rejuvenated, emboldened and grateful for all the support that we received. And we're going to go forward.

MARTIN: How does your family feel about your doing this?

LOPEZ: They're concerned. My mom is devout Catholic, and it's tough on her. But she's very proud of her son. She has confidence in our medical team and confidence in the team around us, confidence in me.

MARTIN: She's scared?

LOPEZ: She's scared. And more than anything, she's putting her faith in God that everything - and she's a very strong woman, and has been a source of my strength.

MARTIN: Rudy Lopez is a senior organizer for the Fair Immigration Reform Movement. He's taking part in the Fast for Families movement. He's - at the moment that we are speaking - he's now gone 13 days without any sustenance except for water. And he was kind enough to stop by our Washington, D.C. studios. From Tucson, Arizona, Ted Robbins is a national correspondent for NPR. He spoke with us from there. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

LOPEZ: Thank you, my pleasure.

ROBBINS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.