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Navarrette: Fasting for legislation leaves a sour taste

POSTED: December 10, 2013 1:00 a.m.

SAN DIEGO — The idea of a fast intended to push a political cause is to turn nothing into something.

Individuals make a public showing of the fact that — for a week or two — they consume nothing but water in the hopes that something will come of it politically.

In the early half the 20th century, Mohandas Gandhi fasted more than a dozen times to advance the movement for Indian independence. His longest fast, in 1943, was for 21 days.

Gandhi’s strategy was to put his own health at risk to promote nonviolence to pressure British officials and his own followers — neither of whom wanted the spiritual leader to die — to embrace nonviolence.

In Delano, Calif., in the last half of the 20th century, United Farm Workers President Cesar Chavez publicly fasted at least three times — for 25 days in 1968, 24 days in 1972, and 36 days in 1988. The labor leader once described the purpose of fasting this way: “A fast is first and foremost personal. It is a fast for the purification of my own body, mind, and soul. ... The fast is also an act of penance for those in positions of moral authority and for all men and women activists who know what is right and just, who know that they could and should do more.”

Well said. I would add that the purpose of a fast is usually to draw the public’s attention to a cause, or to atone for the actions of a movement’s followers.

The so-called Fast for Families — which consisted of four long-term fasters who camped out on the Mall in Washington for almost a month — was more about the former than the latter.

Eliseo Medina, former international secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union along with Cristian Avila of Mi Familia Vota, Dae Joong Yoon of the National Korean American Service and Education Consortium and Lisa Sharon Harper of Sojourners were trying to put pressure on House Speaker John Boehner and House Republicans to pass an immigration reform bill that would give the undocumented a path to citizenship.

Let’s be honest. This is not going to happen. The most that Republicans will offer, in a move that will alienate much of their conservative base, is a shot at legal status without citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

And speaking of being honest, as long as we’re talking about atonement, the person who is most in need of forgiveness when it comes to immigrants is President Barack Obama, who has deported nearly 2 million of them since taking office. The fasters, however, seem to prefer to remain silent about this.

On the day after Thanksgiving, Obama paid a visit to the tent where the fasters were gathered to assure them that he was in their corner and to urge them to keep the pressure on Republicans. Before the president left, the activists even posed for a picture with him.

Considering that this was billed as a fast for “families,” and the Obama administration has divided thousands of families by dropping mommy or daddy on the other side of the U.S.-Mexico border, this made about as much sense as a turkey posing for a photo with Pilgrims right before dinner.

Immigration reform advocates on the left only demand decisive action from Republicans; when they deal with Democrats, pretty words will suffice. What they leave out of their speeches and press releases is that there are plenty of House and Senate Democrats — from either Republican-controlled red states or union-dominated blue states — who are also an impediment to achieving immigration reform.

Afraid of being saddled at re-election time with the label of being pro-amnesty, these Democrats play a cynical game where they’ll only vote for an immigration bill if they can be assured by the vote-counters in their party’s leadership that it’ll never pass.

Back on the Mall, the four original fasters ended their protest after 22 days. They were replaced by eight other people who continued the fast. They include Rep. Joe Kennedy, D-Mass., Bernice King, a pastor and the daughter of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and Rev. Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and about a dozen Democratic members of Congress have come by to offer support.

It makes sense. After all, the “Fast for Families” is housed in a tent. It was only a matter of time before this turned into a circus.

Ruben Navarrette is a columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group.


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