From Gandhi to Gitmo, the hunger strike has been employed traditionally to focus the public’s attention on human rights issues. Next week, Wednesday through Saturday, the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice is using that page from the nonviolent resistance playbook to dramatize the plight of families threatened by Congressional inaction on immigration policy reform. For three days, at a public site as yet undisclosed, participants will forego food,* breaking their fasts on June 28, a national day of action for immigration reform. Kyle Tharp, ACIJ communications director, gave us a lot to chew on:
Weld: Your organization is calling for “a hunger strike to keep families together.” How would you explain that concept to our readers?
Kyle Tharp: I don’t think many people would argue that our government doesn’t have an immigration policy that’s broken, and that affects people different ways. Primarily, immigrants who are already here are people who are undocumented, who don’t have legal immigration status. Immigrants, especially in Alabama, live in fear of being deported by immigration officials. The thing we’d like to communicate about these individuals and most undocumented folks living here is that they’re part of families, especially families we call “mixed status.” Many have U.S. citizen children, but both the parents are undocumented; that happens very frequently. We’re calling on the president to stop deportations, but mainly we’re calling on Congress to pass a permanent solution through immigration reform. Doing that would keep families together, and that’s what we’re calling for.
Weld: Is it possible to estimate how many families in our area are affected in this way?
KT: What we do know is that this April, the administration hit a record two million deportations, so since President Obama took office, he’s deported two million people. That’s more than any other president in U.S. history and more than all presidents in U.S. history combined before 1998. So that shows the severity. He has a quota of deporting around 400,000 immigrants a year.
In Alabama, it’s really hard to get numbers. We know that most undocumented immigrants in the state of Alabama happen to be from Mexico. Looking at census figures and stuff, we can estimate that there are several hundred thousand undocumented immigrants in the state of Alabama that live in fear of being deported and that have family members who are U.S. citizens. It’s really messed up.
Basically, the reason we are doing the event, and are doing it now, is because last April or last May, the U.S. Senate passed a comprehensive immigration bill that the members of our coalition supported. It granted an earned pathway to citizenship, including various border security measures, changes to legal immigration and visas and whatnot. It’s a massive bill.
That bill never progressed on to the House of Representatives, and the House decided not to take up any immigration bill yet. It’s been about a year and time is running out for the House to act on passing a bill, so we’re specifically calling on Rep. [Spencer] Bachus, who’s been supportive of immigration reform, to get his Republican colleagues in the House to put immigration reform to a vote. A lot of national groups have given June 28 as a sort of deadline for House action on immigration reform because passing a bill takes so long that they think this is the last chance for the year to get this done. These next two weeks are critical and we’re really trying to send the message to keep it in the news that our system is broken and that we’re not going to stop fighting until we get immigration reform.
Weld: A hunger strike is a pretty strong message. Generally speaking, it’s a personal political statement. How does this translate into mass action in this particular instance?
KT: I think going without food, sadly, isn’t something new for a lot of our immigrant leaders. You’ll see some of the folks who are striking went several days in the desert without food on their way to get here, so it’s a deeply personal thing for several of them and for many immigrant families here. I think we’re willing to do anything, everything, to call attention to this, and this is just one strategy we are using. In March, our coalition also had a large direct-action event at an immigration detention facility in Gadsden. Seven of our leaders, three of whom were undocumented, blocked the doors and were arrested.
Weld: Does a hunger strike, besides calling attention to the need for immigration reform, serve a more tangible political purpose, as with the action in Gadsden?
KT: Clearly, the main purpose is to call attention and educate the public as to what’s going on by resorting to these drastic measures, but I also think it really rallies the immigrants in this state and re-energizes folks to not give up and to show the immigrant communities that we’re still fighting and there’s people speaking on behalf of them. We’re also targeting Rep. Bachus, and he’s been extremely supportive of immigration reform. He’s one of 28 House Republicans who’ve actually endorsed the pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants, which is impressive and great in Alabama, but that hasn’t gotten us very far, because House leadership hasn’t had a vote. I think an immediate purpose is also to urge Representative Bachus to make moves and to push the Speaker, and whoever may be the Majority Leader, to take action.
Weld: You mention the Majority Leader, and in the wake of his, Eric Cantor’s, defeat in Virginia — due, some say, to his support of reform — is it even realistic to hope that the House would take any action by June 28?
KT: It’s really funny how these political issues can be spun in any number of directions. Quite frankly, Eric Cantor lost because he is an [expletive]. Many of his Republican colleagues believe the same. Even friends that work on the Hill in the Republican conference all agree that he was a bad person. What I would like to point to is Lindsey Graham from South Carolina, a fairly moderate US senator from a very conservative state, representing a very conservative Tea party constituency. He was in a primary on the same night and completely destroyed several Tea Party opponents, and he was one of the authors of the immigration reform bill.
I think you can spin a lot of issues, but what we saw, especially even last August, was Spencer Bachus being from one of the most conservative districts in the nation, with very little pushback from the far-right wing on immigration. I’d say folks have bigger fish to fry, and the right is more energized by issues of Obamacare and things other than immigration.
Weld: The House, of course, is a more volatile political entity than the Senate. If Spencer Bachus has any juice left, it would be interesting to see him bring that to bear. Has he made any statement as yet about moving forward on the bill before June 28?
KT: No, he hasn’t. He’s expressed to us and the public that he’s in favor of it, that he would vote for it, but no. He has given us advice on different folks we could maybe reach out to, but time’s running out, and Spencer Bachus won’t be with us next session, so we’re trying to get two votes for immigration reform from Alabama.
Weld: ACIJ is calling for “administrative relief and legislative reform.” In laymen’s terms, what form would that take, as far as the coalition is concerned?
KT: The target of this action is primarily legislative reform. We want a permanent solution for immigration reform. This Congress has a rapidly closing window of opportunity to act on legislative reform. After June 28, which is the deadline we’re giving Congress, we will continue to escalate pressure on the president to act if Congress does not.
Weld: Are you surprised that President Obama has not been more forthcoming on this issue?
KT: Yeah. Surprised and disappointed. What I think a lot of folks see is a president who used toughened border security and record-breaking deportations as a sort of bargaining chip in hopes that Republicans would negotiate with him on immigration reform, but what we’ve seen is, even though he’s deported more individuals than any other president in history, the Republicans still say he’s not enforcing the laws hard enough or whatnot. I think he played his cards wrong and, sadly, it’s biting him right now.
Another thing that happened several weeks ago was, the president had finally committed to go through a review of his deportation policies at DHS [Department of Homeland Security] and ordered a review. That was supposed to give us some sort of results, come out with something over the past several weeks. However, on the day that those results were supposed to come out, the president decided to delay any sort of review of his deportation policies until after the summer, to give Congress more time to act. So we’ll see if that was a gamble that plays out well. We’re staying optimistic, but every day that passes is a day they’re not working on immigration reform.
Weld: How do you see the general public, outside the immigrant community, getting involved in the hunger strike here in Birmingham?
KT: We already have several non-immigrants who have agreed to come join us. The events will be open to the public, we’ve been advertising on Facebook and e-mailing to all our networks and various nonprofits around the state. People are welcome to come and also to commit to hunger strike for either one day or several days, and they can join us at the events. I also think sharing support and sharing publicity online and such would be great.
Weld: Speaking of online, do you have a way to keep people informed about the progress of the hunger strike while it’s happening, letting them know how many folks are getting involved?
Weld: Do you think that the outrage ginned up in the partisan press over the arrival of unaccompanied immigrant children in the US from Central America will affect the dialogue on immigration reform?
KT: I think that’s really devastating. I mean, all the human rights abuses at the border just show how multi-faceted this issue is, that there are so many things that need to be fixed. You know, if you improved what you would call “border security,” then you’re still not going to have a solution for the folks already here. If you find a solution for the folks here, but you don’t change legal mechanisms of immigrating, such as expanding visas, then you’re still going to have problems. I definitely think that the more news you have about these different issues, all these things need to be considered and make the issues more important for Congress to deal with.
Weld: It’s interesting to see how many political experts speculate that, for the 2016 presidential race, if the Republicans don’t come around on immigration reform, thus losing the Hispanic vote, they will not retake the White House the way they hope.
KT: Even [U.S. Chamber of Commerce President] Tom Donahue has said that, last month. I think it’s very difficult, the way our Congress is set up right now, particularly with House districts being so homogenous. House members can feel very comfortable in their districts, but nationally, it really hurts them when you put all these homogenous districts together. We’ll see what happens. We’re going to still keep fighting these next few weeks, and if we don’t get reform, we’re gonna keep on going until we do.
*Correction (6/20/14, 2:25 p.m.): The participants in the fast will forego food, not water, as was originally stated.