Photo by Monivette Cordeiro
Bundled in hoodies, knit beanies and blankets to ward off a chilly blast, activists huddled in lawn chairs outside U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio's office Wednesday in downtown Orlando as they fasted for immigrant protections.
Five activists have been on a hunger strike since Tuesday morning outside Rubio's office. Their nonviolent protest aims to persuade the Republican senator to vote for a "clean" DREAM Act for recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) and permanent residency for immigrants with Temporary Protected Status (TPS) designations. The DACA program protects around 800,000 undocumented youth from deportation and gives them a chance to work legally, including almost 33,000 in Florida. A "clean" DREAM Act would not include provisions to increase funding for immigration enforcement, build a border wall or expand the private prison and detention centers system. Florida is also home to an estimated 44,800 TPS recipients, including about 33,000 Haitians. The Trump administration rescinded DACA in September and gave Haitian TPS recipients 18 months to leave their homes or be deported.
Ofelia Sanchez's last meal was some soup that she had on Monday. The 24-year-old says Orlando activists were inspired to do their own hunger strike by Miami activists
who fasted in front of Rubio's office last week. The Miami New Times
reports a U.S. Customs and Border Protection truck circled the group as they protested. Sanchez, who works with the Youth and Young Adult Network of the National Farm Worker Ministry, says activists tried to deliver flowers to Rubio's Orlando office at 201 S. Orange Ave. on Tuesday, but were not allowed in the private building.
"I'm out here as somebody who isn't personally affected but a lot of my family members are DACA recipients or undocumented," she says. "I had the privilege of being born here, and I felt because I have that privilege, it was only right for me to be out here. My family can't be out here for various reasons, but I can."
Photo by Monivette Cordeiro
Sanchez says the group is staying outside Rubio's office during the day and then sleeping together at a church. They're getting regular checks on their vital signs and drinking water, tea, Gatorade and Pedialyte. The hunger pangs have subsided, she says, but occasionally someone's stomach growls. In the center, activists set up a makeshift altar with candles and photos of undocumented youth who are participating in the fast remotely. Tareek Leonard, another activist who is fasting, decided to join the hunger strike to uplift the stories of undocumented immigrants.
"The people who we're fighting for maybe can't come out and fight for their rights because of fear or a lack of safety," the 20-year-old says. "I would like to tell Sen. Rubio that as someone who claims to be a champion for immigrants, something that would really prove that is by passing a spending bill with a clean DREAM Act and showing the Orlando community and the Florida community that you stand with undocumented immigrants and that you're willing to support them in a pathway to citizenship."
On Thursday, the activists will be moving their hunger strike outside U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy's office. Sanchez says that while the group is aware of Murphy's own immigrant journey
to the U.S., the Winter Park Democrat still voted
for a controversial bill perceived as anti-immigrant. The bill, called "Kate's Law," toughens penalties for deported undocumented people who try to re-enter the country. The measure was named after a San Francisco woman who was allegedly murdered by an undocumented immigrant – Steinle's death was also used by President Donald Trump to bolster anti-immigrant sentiments during the campaign. A jury
recently acquitted the suspect in Steinle's case.
"We understand that she wants to keep criminals off the streets, but these laws indirectly target undocumented people," Sanchez says. "It sets a different standard for them than people born here because they're from a different country. I think she needs to rethink her views on those laws and in the future continue to support legislation that doesn't target undocumented people and helps TPS recipients on a pathway to citizenship."
In the past, Murphy has urged Congress to support
DACA recipients, calling them an "integral part of the fabric of American society." In a statement, a spokesperson for Murphy said the congresswoman is a steadfast supporter of "Dreamers" and the broader immigrant community as a refugee and immigrant herself.
"She is a co-sponsor of the Dream Act and has signed a discharge petition to promptly bring the bill to a vote on the House floor," Javier Hernandez, a spokesperson for Murphy, said in a statement. "She also co-sponsored bipartisan legislation that would provide a path to legal status for TPS recipients from Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, and Haiti. Congresswoman Murphy understands the call for urgency from the passionate activist community, and is working in Congress to secure an enduring legislative solution for Dreamers and TPS recipients. She is also encouraged by the bipartisan DREAM Act negotiations currently taking place in the House and Senate."
For his part, Rubio has recently stayed on the sidelines after being at the forefront of the 2012 version of the DREAM Act that never passed. The senator considers the DACA program unconstitutional but has previously stated he supports protecting undocumented youth.
Tiffany Burks, 24, was part of the Miami hunger strike with 18 other people and was in Orlando on Wednesday fasting again. The University of Central Florida graduate says although the strike in Miami was hot and humid, it was also a healing experience. She doesn't know if Rubio is paying attention, but she hopes he starts listening to his constituents.
"Rubio is doing a disservice by not listening to people who are literally outside his office," she says. "It just speaks truth to power that the fasting in Miami inspired this fast in Orlando. This is not the end – he can't turn a blind eye to this. It's in his face."