WASHINGTON – President Obama told about 20 hunger strikers on the National Mall on Friday that he supported their effort to pressure House Republicans to overhaul immigration laws but was concerned about their health.
Three of the protesters, including labor leader Eilseo Medina, 67, have not eaten for 18 days and are drinking only water.
Obama and first lady Michelle Obama met with the group for about 30 minutes in a heated tent near the steps of the Capitol to discuss the immigration bill that has stalled in the House.
“He was really concerned about our health,” Christian Avila, 23, a student from Arizona who stopped eating Nov. 12. “He said we might think about handing the torch over … and taking a break.”
Avila, who wore a brown hooded sweatshirt that read, “Act. Fast.”, said he plans to stave off eating as long as he can.
Obama told the group he has instructed his staff to figure out what else they can do to get an immigration bill to his desk. He said he believes Congress eventually will change the law to allow undocumented immigrants to work and live legally.
“It’s not a mater of if, but when,” the president said, according to Avila.
Rudy Lopez, a community organizer from East Chicago, told the Obamas that he joined the fast in part because his cousin, 43, had died in 2005 crossing the Southwest border to start a construction job in Houston. Michelle Obama hugged him, he said.
“The first lady was moved,” said Lopez, who has been fasting for nine days.
In June, the Senate passed an immigration bill that would increase spending by more than $30 billion for border security and would allow most of the estimated 11 million people in the country illegally to pay a fine, submit to a background check, and eventually become citizens. The bill has gone nowhere in the House.
The hunger strikers also have been visited by Vice President Biden, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Secretary of Labor Tom Perez. Two House Republicans from California, Jeff Denham and David Valadao, who both support passing an immigration bill in the House, also have stopped by.
Shortly after the Obamas’ visit, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, daughter of the late Robert F. Kennedy, stopped by to sit with the fasters. In 1968, shortly before he was assassinated, her father visited Cesar Chavez in Delano, Calif., where the labor leader was fasting to bring attention to the working conditions of farm workers.
“There is a moral quality to what kind of country we are,” Townsend said after meeting with the protesters. “That is what my father believed. … This is about real people and their lives.”