Hunger Strikers Seek New Immigrant Rights Movement

Editor's Note: Today marks the last day of a three-week hunger strike by immigrant rights protesters who hoped to re-energize the movement. Kenneth Kim is a Los Angeles-based reporter for New America Media.

LOS ANGELES -- As discussions on immigration reform disappeared from the presidential election campaigns, immigrant rights protesters have completed the third week of their hunger strike to re-energize the movement that brought hundreds of thousands to the streets in 2006.

Earlier this week, about 50 people camped out on the south side of La Placita Olvera in downtown Los Angeles, the historic heart of the Latino community, where traditional foods, vibrant Latino music and tourists are always abundant.

These days, dozens of tents dot the plaza.

The students, human rights activists, undocumented immigrants and U.S. citizens are putting their bodies on the line to call for the new administration to stop immigration raids and legalize the nation's estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants. They are also hoping to mobilize 1 million eligible Latino voters to go to the polls.

Since their fast began on Oct. 15, more than 150 immigrants have taken part for a few days each, according to the organization Fast for Our Future. Meanwhile, eight ardent protesters have fasted for the full 21 days until Election Day.

"If capital investment can cross borders, so can we," Cesar Santaolaya, a 60-year-old undocumented day laborer who came to the United States six years ago from Mexico, said in Spanish through an interpreter.

Santaolaya was weak from fasting since Oct. 15, but he was determined to continue. He said the current immigration's policies are flawed, and immigration raids on meat packing factories, agricultural fields and homes are tearing families and communities apart.

What has made him even more frustrated is the lack of political leadership in solving the problem. Neither Sen. Barack Obama nor Sen. John McCain had brought up immigration as a major campaign issue. "Obama and McCain, and any politicians for that matter," Santaolaya said, "are not showing leadership."

Fearing loss of support from working-class voters, whom Obama and McCain have been trying to attract, both candidates have been careful about discussing this thorny issue. Both candidates spoke publicly about supporting legislation that would include a path to legal status for the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in the country. But not once in their three debates did they discuss the issue in depth.

This is one of the main reasons 150 people decided to go on a prolonged hunger strike.

With the candidates focusing on the ailing economy, the Iraq war and health care, many immigrants fear that the new administration would be less likely to come up with a proposal any time soon to overhaul the immigration laws.

"If we don't start mobilizing now, legalization will not happen soon," said Jean Carlo Araya, a 26-year-old cook.

Like those who marched the streets of U.S. cities in 2006 to demand immigration reform, the majority of those participating in the hunger strike is Latino. But they have the strong support of other ethnic communities, faith-based groups and labor unions. The Korean American Resources Center in Los Angeles, for example, informed local Korean-language media about the hunger strike.

"Please let members of the Korean American community know about immigrants' struggle for legalization," said the organization's Korean-language press release.

Longtime activists and local elected officials also visited the encampment to encourage the fasters.

Dolores Huerta, co-founder of United Farm Workers, paid two visits to Olvera Plaza to show her support. She told the fasters that not only were they fasting for the future of immigrants and their children, but also for the future of California and the nation. "¡Que vivan los inmigrantes! ¡Que viva Cesar Chavez!" she chanted with the fasters.

Ed Reyes, a Los Angeles city councilman, and Maria Elena Durazo, the executive secretary and treasurer of the Los Angeles Federation of Labor, which has more than 800,000 members, also showed their support, along with other civic and religious leaders.

Each day for the past three weeks, the protesters have been praying, singing, reading and organizing to support each other. Each night, they retreat into their tents. Doctors have kept a cautious eye on them to monitor their health.

While Araya, who has been fasting since Oct. 22, was speaking to a reporter, the odor of grilled sausages and onions from food vendors in the plaza drifted into the encampment and lingered in the air. Araya paused for a moment, but then continued. "If we don't sacrifice ourselves today," he said, "there will be no tomorrow."

"Every day is the beginning of a new struggle," agreed Margaret Johnson, a 26-year-old former paralegal who has been fasting since Oct. 15. "But we overcome temptations with the belief that the next president will listen to our voices."

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