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Labor Leader Eliseo Medina on Fasting for Immigration Reform, Organizing with Cesar Chavez

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The Republican-controlled House of Representatives has finished its work for the year without passing comprehensive immigration reform. On Thursday, leaders from both parties promised to revisit the issue early in the new year. Meanwhile, more than 1,000 immigration activists descended into the offices of House lawmakers on Thursday afternoon to protest the House’s inaction on the issue. The demonstrations came as the immigration reform organization “Fast for Families” concluded 31 days of fasting. We speak to Eliseo Medina, former international secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union. Medina recently spent 22 days on a water-only fast. Medina worked alongside labor leader and civil rights activist Cesar Chavez for 13 years. His career as a labor activist began in 1965 when, as a 19-year-old grape picker, he participated in the historic United Farm Workers strike in Delano, California.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The Republican-controlled House of Representatives has finished its work for the year without passing comprehensive immigration reform. On Thursday, leaders from both parties promised to revisit the issue early in the new year. Meanwhile, outside the White House, more than a thousand immigration activists descended on the offices of House lawmakers on Thursday to protest the House’s inaction on the issue. They held vigils and shared their personal stories at the offices of more than 190 House Republicans and four House Democrats.

AMY GOODMAN: The demonstrations came as the immigration reform organization Fast for Families concluded 31 days of fasting. During a press conference on the National Mall, activists broke their fast with bread and water, vowed to continue pushing for an immigration reform bill that includes a cessation to deportations and a pathway to citizenship. The fasters had set up a tent on the National Mall and received visits from high-profile guests, like, oh, President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Last month, President Obama praised the fasters’ resolve.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Right now, I’m seeing brave advocates who have been fasting for two weeks in the shadow of the Capitol, sacrificing themselves in an effort to get Congress to act. And I want to say to Eliseo Medina, my friend from SEIU, and the other fasters who are there as we speak, I want them to know we hear you. We’re with you. The whole country hears you.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we go to Washington, D.C., where we’re joined by Eliseo Medina. He served as international secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union until October 1st. He resigned saying he wanted to work full-time on winning comprehensive immigration legislation. Medina recently spent 22 days on a water-only fast as part of the action by “A Fast for Families: A Call for Immigration Reform and Citizenship.” He worked alongside labor leader Cesar Chavez for 13 years. His career as a labor activist began in 1965, when, as a 19-year-old grape picker, he participated in the historic United Farm Workers strike in Delano, California.

Eliseo Medina, welcome to Democracy Now! Can you talk about why you fasted and what you feel you have accomplished, now that the House has ended without passing immigration reform?

ELISEO MEDINA: Well, thank you, Amy. First of all, you know, we were haunted by the fact that last year 463 people died in the desert trying to come to the United States in search of a better life. Over two million people have been deported from the United States. And, you know, these are numbers, but beyond those numbers, there’s real people, real human beings, with families who love them and who they love. And they will never be back with their families because they died in the desert. Or children are left behind when their mom or dad are deported, and they cry themselves to sleep wondering when they will see their parents again. And we just couldn’t stand to continue to see this human suffering that’s going on in our community, so we decided that we would go on a fast to dramatize, to put a human face on this moral crisis facing our country.

And I feel very fortunate that we touched the heart of America. We had thousands and thousands of people joining our fast, not only the United States, but around the world. I think that we managed to unify all sectors of our community in support of immigration reform. And even though the Congress left town without doing anything about immigration reform, I think that there’s no doubt that they have to do something now. And we are going to keep pushing. We are taking our fast out into every congressional district, so that when they come back to Washington in January, they will have to act and finish the work of creating a just and humane immigration system.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Eliseo, we’ve heard this, though, about—that we’re near or possibly close to some kind of a solution on immigration reform now for several years. Back in 2007, there was a possibility of a deal then. Yesterday, I think in Los Angeles, a city councilman, Gil Cedillo, and some other California politicians began calling for President Obama to act himself, if nothing is done by Congress within the next few months. They’re calling for him to use his own executive authority, as he did with the DREAMers, to basically halt massive deportations that have been occurring under his administration. What’s your sense of whether that should be the next step if nothing happens, let’s say, in January and February from the new Congress?

ELISEO MEDINA: Well, I think that this is a shared responsibility and that both the president and the Congress have authority within their own—the Constitution to do certain things. The president, for example, has the power, through executive authority, like he did with the DREAMers, to provide some relief to all of this deportations that are going on that are tearing families apart. But the president is also right that the only permanent solution is for the Congress to reform the immigration laws. And we will be pushing really hard to make sure that the Congress in fact does act. But in the meantime, I think the president needs to really take a look and prioritize the enforcement of the laws through the Department of Homeland Security to focus on criminals, not on everyday workers.

AMY GOODMAN: You were sitting next to him as you were fasting and he came to visit. What did you talk to him about? And did you ask him about that?

ELISEO MEDINA: We did. We said to the president that—and shared with him the stories of families who have been torn apart by deportation. And he heard us. I think that he was moved, as was the first lady, by all of this story after story about the impact of this system. And I think the president told us that he was going to continue looking at this and would work with us to try and figure out how we could work this out. And we’re hopeful that as the days goes on, that hopefully we’ll be able to figure out a way of stopping this pain and suffering that still continues today in our communities.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Eliseo, in late November, a young Korean immigrant rights activist, Ju Hong, interrupted a speech President Obama was giving about immigration reform.

JU HONG: Mr. President, please use your executive order to halt deportations for all 11.5 undocumented immigrants in this country right now. We agree that we need to pass comprehensive immigration reform at the same time. You have a power to stop deportations for all undocumented families in this country.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Actually, I don’t. And that’s why we’re here. … The easy way out is to try to yell and pretend like I can do something by violating our laws. And what I’m proposing is the harder path, which is to use our democratic processes to achieve the same goal that you want to achieve. But it won’t be as easy as just shouting. It requires us lobbying and getting it done.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was President Obama responding to a young immigrant rights activist. But, Eliseo, we have this situation that every day of delay is another thousand to 1,200 people that are being deported from the United States, and families continue to be torn apart now, for the next several weeks through the holidays and into January and February. This—do you see a ramping up in January and February of the pressure, or will the—both the Democrats and Republicans, as we get closer to next year’s midterm elections, begin to try to get away from having to take a firm stand on immigration reform?

ELISEO MEDINA: Well, you know, we are already planning to take our fast from Washington out into every congressional district in the country, where we are going to be going to the congressmen’s district and having conversations with their constituents about why this immigration reform needs to be done as fast as possible. There is no option for us. We cannot continue to allow deportations and deaths in the desert. And so we will be pressing Congress to act, and we will also be asking the president to also take a look and act within his authority.

But, you know, at the end of the day, they will have to make a decision. Congress will have to make a decision whether they want to take a vote or not. If they decide not to, we know there’s an election coming in November of 2014 in which we get to vote—we, the people who care about this issue, and there’s millions and millions and millions of us. And we will be holding the Congress accountable for their actions or inactions as it pertains to immigration reform. If they won’t vote for us today, why should we vote for them tomorrow? And we want them to hear that loud and clear, that we also have a choice to make, and that choice is that we will remember who stood with us and who stood against us, when it comes time to vote in November of 2014. So, to make it simpler on everybody, just vote today. We can put this pain and suffering behind us, and then we can focus on the other issues that matter to this country during November of 2014.

AMY GOODMAN: Eliseo Medina, last month, a pair of immigrant teenagers confronted Speaker John Boehner at a Capitol Hill diner. Thirteen-year-old Carmen Lima shared her story and asked the speaker to commit to immigration reform.

CARMEN LIMA: I’m Carmen Lima.


CARMEN LIMA: I’m 13. And you’re a father, right?


CARMEN LIMA: So, how would you feel if you had to tell your kids at the age of 10 that you were never coming home?

SPEAKER JOHN BOEHNER: That wouldn’t be good.


SPEAKER JOHN BOEHNER: That wouldn’t be good.

CARMEN LIMA: I know. So, that’s what’s happening—that’s what happened to me. That happened to me. I thought I was never going to see my dad again, because of [inaudible] immigrant. And I cried so hard when my mom told me that at the age of 10.

SPEAKER JOHN BOEHNER: Well, I’m trying to find somebody to get this thing done. It’s, you know, not easy. It’s not going to be an easy path forward. But I’ve made it clear since the day after the election it’s time to get it done.

CARMEN LIMA: So we can count on your vote for immigration reform?

SPEAKER JOHN BOEHNER: I’m trying to find a way to move the bill forward.

AMY GOODMAN: Immigrants’ rights activists confronting John Boehner at a Washington, D.C., diner. I want to go back in time, comparing this movement to the movement of Cesar Chavez, the legendary labor activist, civil rights leader, founder of the first successful farm workers union, speaking at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco in November of 1984, a few months after he had launched the third and longest grape boycott.

CESAR CHAVEZ: All my life, I have been driven by one dream, one goal, one vision: to overthrow a farm labor system in this nation that treats farm workers as if they were not important human beings. Farm workers are not agricultural implements. They are not beasts of burden to be used and discarded.

AMY GOODMAN: Eliseo Medina, you worked alongside Cesar Chavez. Can you talk about, well, a comparison of movements?

ELISEO MEDINA: Well, let me just say, you know, that Cesar was an organizational genius, an inspiration, a life-changing force for all of us—myself, who used to be a farm worker in California, with an eighth-grade education, no hope for the future, until I met Cesar. And I see that movement that he began as continuing today, because we’re talking about the same things. We’re talking about respect. We’re talking about dignity, about people being appreciated for the work they do and for their contributions.

And what’s different today, perhaps, is that we now have a much broader coalition of conscience that wants to see things done right for working people and for immigrants, and it includes business and labor and the faith community—Mormons, Baptists, Catholics, evangelicals. It includes community groups, environmental groups, Republicans and Democrats. There is a unique consensus on immigration reform that is broader than we ever had in the farm workers movement.

And I think that we are the descendents of Cesar’s vision for this country and for our community. And I think that we’re going to win immigration reform, just like Cesar won many victories in the fields of California. This is the right cause. This is the right time. I think the American people demands it. The Republicans need it for their own political needs. And I think, at the end, it will be good for America, it will be good for immigrants. and we will get it done. It’s not a matter of if; it’s a matter of when.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But, Eliseo, even within the labor movement, there was a long walk on this issue of immigration reform, wasn’t there? The early labor movement, the AFL-CIO, to a certain extent, even the farm workers for a while, saw the immigrant labor as a threat to domestic U.S. labor. Could you talk about that process of being—of first waging the battle within the labor movement to change its position, before now this broader fight among the American people?

ELISEO MEDINA: Well, unfortunately, you know, the early labor movement saw immigrants as competition rather than allies. And for many years they were taking a position to try and restrict immigration, because they saw immigrants as taking the jobs of American workers. Obviously, business didn’t see it that way, because what the business wanted to do is make as much of a profit as they could. And if they—hiring undocumented workers would help them in doing that, that’s what they did. And it’s ironic because the labor movement was founded by immigrants. For example, our own union in SEIU, we were founded by janitors in Chicago who were immigrants from places like Poland, from Ireland, from the Czech Republic. And we are now, as a labor movement, going back to our roots, to advocating for people who come to this country in search of the American dream.

And it was difficult at first, beginning to shift from what had been basically an isolationist position to one that it says, you know, our job as the labor movement is to unite all workers so that we can all fight together for improving the wages and the benefits of everybody, for our mutual benefit. And so, while it took some time, I’m happy to say that for the last 15 years we’ve all been united. We had the building trades, we have construction unions, we had the industrial unions, all fasting in the tent and all uniting to fight for immigrants’ rights, working together with business. I mean, who would have thunk it? You know, the labor—the Chamber of Commerce and the Change to Win Federation and the AFL-CIO together on anything? But this one issue overcomes all those barriers and divisions, and brings us together, because at the end of the day it will be good for the economy, it will be good for working people, and it will be good for us as a nation of immigrants.

AMY GOODMAN: Eliseo Medina, we want to thank you for being with us. Among those who fasted for a day this week in solidarity with all of the immigrant rights fasters, New Jersey Senators Robert Menendez and Cory Booker and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin. Eliseo Medina served as the international secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, until October 1st, resigning saying he wanted to work full-time on winning comprehensive immigration legislation. He helped lead the month-long water-only fast as part of the action, “A Fast for Families: A Call for Immigration Reform and Citizenship.”

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’re going to New Orleans to a Polaroid chemist who helped lead the movement against apartheid when she, together with her husband, realized the company they were working for was making pass books for black South Africans. Stay with us.

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