By Dana Milbank
WASHINGTON — As immigration activists ended a fourth week of fasting on the Mall, they were buoyed by a promise from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to visit their encampment Monday.
But minutes before Reid’s scheduled appearance at the Fast for Families tents a few blocks from the Capitol, the action’s organizers told reporters and photographers that they had just received a call from Reid’s office canceling his visit. The office blamed the icy weather — although the majority leader, it turned out, was already in Washington, and the roads were clear.
A spokesman for the Nevada Democrat said the visit will be rescheduled, but Reid had better hurry: The activists are expected to announce on Thursday that they are folding their tents.
House Republicans appear to be little, if any, closer to passing immigration legislation than they were a month ago. They’re planning to leave town for Christmas break at the end of the week (they returned last week from Thanksgiving recess) and House Speaker John Boehner didn’t respond to the two letters the fasting activists delivered to him requesting a meeting.
“Unfortunately, neither Speaker Boehner nor his office has contacted us,” Sylvia Ruiz, the Service Employees International Union official who is leading the fast, told me Monday from the three-tent compound. “It’s hard to move policy forward when a conversation can’t happen.”
This is not to take anything away from Ruiz’s efforts. By the usual standard for demonstrations, Fast for Families has been extraordinarily successful at focusing attention on the House’s inaction. The group received visits from President Obama, Vice President Biden, the first lady, Cabinet members and about 50 lawmakers. The hunger action got national media attention and inspired about 10,000 solidarity fasters.
But even that couldn’t budge the rock-solid indifference of the House GOP leadership. Organizers say three Republican members of Congress visited the encampment — Reps. Jeff Denham and David Valadao of California and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida — but a majority of the caucus remains opposed to comprehensive reform.
Even though most Americans favor immigration legislation, and even though not passing it could more deeply alienate Republicans from Hispanics, GOP lawmakers fear any support for so-called amnesty could cost them their jobs to conservative primary challengers.
Last week, the Las Vegas Sun quoted Reid predicting that Boehner is “going to cave in” on allowing the House to pass legislation such as the bipartisan Senate bill. But, if so, it’s apparently going to take something beyond hunger strikes.
Technically, the action isn’t a hunger strike, because the participants are under medical care and have agreed not to cause themselves long-term harm. The original four fasters went 22 days before standing down last week. Among those still active, the longest has been consuming just water and electrolytes for 19 days. About 20 Democratic members of Congress have signed up to do a tag-team fast, in which each goes without food for a day or so.
“Nobody has a martyrdom syndrome,” said Rudy Lopez, who was starting day 19 when I spoke to him Monday. Lopez, whose cousin died crossing the border, has suffered from fatigue, dizziness and migraine auras. He says that he has lost 26 pounds but that he’ll stop whenever the doctors tell him to. “We’re not here saying it has to be our way and if not, we’re going to starve ourselves to death,” he said. “We want to highlight the suffering.”
Maybe Republican leaders would pay attention if it were a real hunger strike, and if people were dying out here, in view of the speaker’s balcony of the Capitol.
But people are dying every day along the border — if past trends have continued, organizers say, about 50 will have died crossing into the United States since the hunger action began — and one of the tents on Third Street contains items recovered from the desert (a makeshift cross, a battered shoe) to serve as a memorial to the dead.
Near that display is a sign that says “Call Speaker Boehner: 866-691-9212.” People have called in large numbers, and about 13,000 more have sent postcards or signed a petition. Religious leaders have added their voices. But Boehner hasn’t responded.
I’m told that the activists will announce plans to decamp and convert the street demonstration into more of an online movement. They deserve credit for their efforts. But they’re up against a cold reality: It’s going to take more than a month of famine to end the House Republicans’ drought on immigration.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist.