The “Fast for Families,” a hunger strike in support of immigration reform backed by a coalition of religious, immigrant, and labor organizations, now enters its twentieth day of encampment on the mall in Washington, D.C. Among the seventeen original fasters are Sister Simone Campbell, Rev. Samuel Rodriguez (National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference), and other national faith leaders. With some original fasters now growing too weak to continue to fast in public, organizers are calling for supporters of immigration reform nationwide to fast in solidarity.
As evangelical Latino leader Gabriel Salguero explained, fasting is an “ancient discipline” that “seeks to move the conscience of a nation while openly confessing our dependence on God.” Fasting is also a significant faith practice for Mormons, who routinely fast the first Sunday of each month as well as at times of heightened spiritual need.
One of the seventeen original fasters, Cristian Avila, is a young LDS immigration activist from Phoenix, Arizona. As Cristian grew too weak to continue his fast in public, Sam Adair, a self-described “active” Mormon, father of three and immigration attorney from Austin, Texas, traveled to stand on the mall.
RD: How did you come to be fasting for immigration reform on the national mall in Washington, D.C.?
SA: My concern about immigration reform started when was 14 or 15 years old and had a job picking watermelons on a farm outside of Phoenix, and I was the only person on the crew who wasn’t undocumented.
In southern California, Mormon parents of wayward kids sent their sons to pick pineapples in Hawaii. Were watermelons the Arizona version?[Laughs.] It wasn’t like that. My dad grew up on a farm and wanted me to have the same experience, so I spent my summers in Phoenix doing manual labor. From it I came to realize that the hardest working people I’d ever known were undocumented. And I would do this work just for a summer, but they were at it six days a week, all year. It really opened my eyes to this issue.
And your [LDS proselytizing] mission to Uruguay impacted you as well.
I got a different perspective living outside the U.S. Plus, my Spanish got a lot better, and I really started to understand things in a larger context. When I came home from my mission I knew I wanted to go to law school and do immigration work.
Two years ago LDS Church leaders went on record in support of compassionate immigration reform. How has that impacted your work?
I get phone calls from LDS people who would identify themselves as politically conservative, but they say, “There’s this guy I know . . . Can you help him? He’s a really good guy.” People need to remember that there are many “really good guys” out there waiting for immigration reform. People coming to the US for work get villainized. “Illegal alien” is one of the most unbelievably pejorative terms you can apply to anyone.
Your experience seems to reflect something I’ve found in Mormon politics: there is a contradiction between incredible concern Mormons show for the individual and yet a reticence or even a resistance to thinking about the systematic problems and injustices the put individuals in impossible and even harmful situations.
It’s a major disconnect.
How would you begin to address that disconnect?
I would encourage people to take a deep breath and a step back and look at some of the comprehensive immigration reform proposals on the table and the solutions they would offer to individuals they know who are the “good guys” who they want to help. This is a time when we have an opportunity to see positive change and fix a broken immigration system. More than anything, I hope people will take the time to think about immigration reform outside the highly politicized rhetoric it’s been put into. There is so much more common ground than people assume.