WASHINGTON – President Barack 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 67-year-old labor leader Eliseo Medina, 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 Capitol to discuss the immigration bill that has stalled in the House.
“He was really concerned about our health,” said Christian Avila, a 23-year-old student from Arizona who stopped eating Nov. 12. “He said we might think about handing the torch over and taking a break.”
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 matter of if, but when,” the president said, according to Avila.
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.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has refused to schedule a vote on a the Senate measure. The House prefers a piecemeal approach, but Boehner hasn’t said whether lawmakers will consider any bills this year or whether the issue will slip into next year, when midterm-election politics will make legislative action less likely.
The strikers also have been visited by Vice President Joseph 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 visited.
Shortly after the Obamas’ visit, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, daughter of the late Robert F. Kennedy, stopped by. 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.”