In Mount Pleasant, Washington DC’s most Latino-identified neighborhood, a small but determined group has taken up residence in Lamont Park to bring attention to their three-day fast for immigrant rights.
The fasters from the DC Committee for Immigrant Rights and their supporters inaugurated the fast on Saturday morning and established their vigil in the small, concrete park. They will continue to fast, drinking only juice, until tomorrow’s May Day protest in Malcolm X Park (simultaneous with other actions around the country) for immigrant rights. Some of the participants may continue fasting through Cinco de Mayo.
They demand an end to the recent rise of raids and deportations, which have caused traumatic family separation. Last year saw over 187,000 deportations – more than any other year in U.S. history. One faster, Reverend Whit Hutchinson of Wesley United Methodist Church, says that he is fasting to send a message to people in the metro area that "what’s happening is not invisible and it is not going unnoticed."
The Committee is also putting pressure on the Washington DC mayor’s office to declare the District of Columbia a Sanctuary City for immigrants, meaning that municipal authorities would be prohibited from cooperating with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Currently, the DC police are not required to turn undocumented immigrants over to ICE but are free to do so. A public declaration of non-cooperation between municipal officials and ICE, which is what the vigilers are asking for, would still not keep federal immigration officials out of DC.
At least fourteen people began the fast on Saturday, with others joining in solidarity for shorter amounts of time. As they started the fast, one commented, "This is nothing – I once went seven days with nothing to eat or drink but river water." It was a sobering reminder of the perils of the journey migrants undertake, at the mercy of coyotes and law enforcement.
Vigilers have spent the last few days handing out bilingual leaflets in the neighborhood, explaining their action, and they have been met with tremendous support. Neighbors have come out to offer words of gratitude and encouragement, help paint banners, and bring juice.
"We brought our own juice and water but haven’t even touched it, because so many people have come with more," said vigiler Mario Canek.
Many Latino allies have come out to spend long days in the park with the fasters, as well as white, native-born US allies. At least one Arab woman is fasting.
Last night, community members came out, trickling in until an estimated one hundred people were present. They made a circle and provided a space for people to give their testimony and express their concerns. At this spontaneous gathering, people found an outlet for their fears and anguish but also their hope that with this activity, and with the solidarity of the community, the deportations and raids could end.
Today, Latina mothers with their children came by and joined the vigilers for chants of "El pueblo unido jamás sera vencido" (The people, united, will never be defeated) and "El pueblo organizado jamás sera deportado" (The people, organized, will never be deported.)
DC Mayor Adrian Fenty has not yet made a statement as to whether or not he will agree to declare Washington DC a sanctuary city, but his staff has reported that he is considering the question. He has been presented with a letter from Metro DC Interfaith Sanctuary Network, the DC committee for Immigrant Rights, Clínica del Pueblo, and Mary’s Center for Maternal and Child Care, asking him to take advantage of "a wonderful opportunity for Washington, DC to send a message of hope, dignity and human solidarity not only to the families most impacted by the campaign of fear and lies, but to the country at large."
Previous mayors of Washington, DC have made it a norm for police to refuse to act as immigration agents, but it has never been declared as a law. Former DC Police Chief Charles Ramsey instructed his officers not to ask for immigration documents or hand people over to immigration agents.
Just as the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980’s was a loose network of religious congregations that provided shelter and protection for refugees, mostly from war-torn Central American countries, the new Sanctuary Movement is organizing to protect immigrants’ human rights here in the United States. Several cities across the country have recently declared themselves Sanctuary Cities, including Chicago, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis. Locally, Takoma Park recently reaffirmed its position as a Sanctuary City and its will to refuse to cooperate with ICE officials.
When undocumented immigrants worry that local officials might turn them over to immigration authorities, those immigrants are hesitant to contact the police even in cases of emergency or to even enroll their children in public schools or seek medical care.
Organizations sponsoring the fast include the DC Committee for Immigrant Rights, the Metro DC Interfaith Sanctuary Network, Mexicanos Sin Fronteras and others. Ironically, even though members of the local FMLN group are lead organizers of the fast, the Maryland FMLN Committee has not endorsed the fast, and in fact held a barbecue event on Saturday, the first day of the fast.
The fasters report that today, on Day Three, they are going strong and committed to completing the fast.
Tanya Snyder is executive director of Voices on the Border (www.votb.org), a nonprofit group that supports economic development and community organizations in rural El Salvador.