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Why I didn't eat for 22 days

By Eliseo Medina
updated 9:08 AM EST, Fri December 6, 2013
President Barack Obama listens to immigration activist Eliseo Medina during a protest fast on the National Mall in Washington.
President Barack Obama listens to immigration activist Eliseo Medina during a protest fast on the National Mall in Washington.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Medina: Failure to pass immigration reform puts America's legacy in jeopardy
  • Medina: We fasted to draw attention to the personal sacrifice of immigrant families
  • Medina: We've reached out to Speaker John Boehner's office

Editor's note: Eliseo Medina is former Secretary-Treasurer of the Service Employees International Union and veteran immigration reform advocate. He just concluded 22 days of fasting on the National Mall where he was visited by President Barack Obama last weekend.

(CNN) -- Fasting and praying for immigration reform is not my story.

It's not the story of three fasters, from different walks of life, who decided to go hungry on the National Mall for what many call an issue that has no hope or prayer in Congress.

No, this is the story of families, of personal sacrifice and hope grounded in faith to truly drive the attention to the suffering and plight of millions of immigrants in our great nation.

Eliseo Medina
Eliseo Medina

It is the story of our country's legacy in jeopardy.

Our United States is morally undermined with an inefficient, inhumane immigration system that causes more than 300 deaths in the desert each year. It is a system that rips apart families, exploits workers and puts our democracy out of reach for millions.

These are the wounds to our nation and families that drove our movement to the doorsteps of the Capitol where "Fast for Families" blossomed and a sea of crosses stand today, hauntingly symbolizing the human lives lost.

For 22 days, the energetic Dae Joong Yoon, a youthfully resilient Cristian Avila and I abstained from all sustenance, drinking only water in a tent just a mere 530 feet away from House Speaker John Boehner's office.

Day after day, we sat alongside numerous advocates fasting with us in solidarity. The risks to which we exposed our bodies were a reminder of the toll our immigrant communities endure every day Speaker Boehner and the House Republican leadership refuse to address America's greatest moral crisis.

While we physically grew weaker and our patchy beards exposed our exhaustion, we were strengthened and honored by ordinary Americans from all walks of life who, in their most vulnerable state, shared their personal histories.

Many told us how and why their families came to this country. Some of these stories ended with fulfillment of the American Dream of citizenship, dignity and a better life. Others spoke of families torn apart by deportation or loved ones dying alone while crossing the deserts of the Southwest.

The saddest stories made me hungrier for immigration reform. No American story should end this way, but many do. At this point last year, more than 400 people had died while crossing the southern border. By 2014, 2 million people will have been deported.

These tragedies are everyday occurrences, not an anomaly.

The common threads among those reaching for the American Dream and the tragic endings of an unfortunate reality are faith and hope. The strength we draw from God and Scripture not only enable us to overcome hardship, but also inspire our thirst for justice and our belief that we will prevail.

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Knowing that each new day of the fast would include these narratives made me all the more determined to visit Speaker John Boehner's office, to attend every community gathering at the tent and to share our stories with President Barack Obama, the first lady, Vice President Joe Biden and countless members of Congress and national leaders who took the time to show their support and solidarity with us as we fasted.

While we were grateful to receive visits from several House Republicans as well, Speaker Boehner ignored our invitation. Even though he refused to look at fasters face to face, I believe he has seen our resolve.

The movement for immigration reform has been reignited and we are more dedicated than ever to sounding the drumbeat for reform and citizenship. We are far from done.

I ended my fast and passed the charge to a new generation of advocates. Congressman Joe Kennedy, grandson of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who had once sat shoulder to shoulder with my late friend Cesar Chavez almost half a century ago, stood before me with the fortitude embodied in our growing movement for immigration reform. It was a poignant reminder of both the length and the direction of the moral arc of the universe.

Here we are more than 40 years later, fasting and praying for change, but also for our country's tradition. It is a tradition marked by the generations of immigrants that have been integrated into our national fabric and democracy as full Americans with the benefits and rights of citizenship.

This is our country's legacy.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Eliseo Medina.

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