[dropcap]R[/dropcap]udy Lopez grew up in an immigrant family in a part of Indiana spread across the southern shore of Lake Michigan called “the region.” It’s a place where fumes from heavy industry fill the air and great clouds of smoke from steel mills hang above freshwater waves that for many months of the year look like elephant skin.
Lopez, 43, is a second-generation Mexican American. His father was born in Waukegan, Illinois, the apple pie Midwestern town where Jack Benny grew up and where Lopez’s grandfather came to harvest sugar beets.
On Wednesday, Lopez was in Aurora, Colorado, and he was hungry, because he is a leader on the “Fasting for Families” cross-country bus tour organized to help advance national immigration reform. The tour had come to Aurora to nudge Mike Coffman, a Republican U.S. representative who in 2008 won the state’s 6th District seat after anti-illegal immigration crusader Tom Tancredo announced he was retiring from Congress.
Lopez is a longtime community organizer but, he said, immigration reform is personal. He has seen among his own friends and relatives the toll the nation’s outdated policies take on families.
“People can’t travel. They miss weddings and funerals and births. They just can’t be there. I lost a cousin in 2005. He was coming into the U.S., over the border, and he got sick, and they abandoned him with a gallon of water. He died alone in the desert. Four hundred people meet that fate each year. It’s senseless,” he said. “We’re asking for something better.”
On February 24, Lopez boarded the brown, Fast for Families-branded ten-wheel coach when it pulled away from City Hall in Los Angeles. The tour will end the first week in April in Washington, D.C., after stops in key swing districts like Coffman’s and in the Ohio and Virginia districts of House leaders John Boehner and Eric Cantor and in places like San Francisco and Chicago, where enormous numbers of Americans are demanding reform.
Participants on the tour are alternating days of fasting. Last November, Lopez participated in a 22-day fasting protest for reform on the national mall. He had downed just vitamins and water all-day on Wednesday. He nevertheless spoke at a hour-long rally that morning and later visited Coffman’s local office with other members of the tour and some of the congressman’s constituents.
“I love America,” Lopez said. “I want it to be all the best things it can be. That’s why we’re doing this. We’re asking for something that’s good for the country [and] that a great majority of Americans support — something that’s based in American history and that’s in accord with its founding principles.”
The tour and its supporters are asking members of the Republican-controlled House to introduce some version of legislation that will include pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants living and working in the country and that will end deportation and visa policies that break up families.
Lopez and local faith, labor and business leaders said they see an opening with Coffman to pressure House leaders. They say they have seen “movement” on the issue from Coffman. They point to a proposal he has floated to grant citizenship to undocumented young people who enlist in the military, to his new small-step Spanish-language outreach efforts and the op-ed he penned for the Denver Post last summer calling for immigration reform.
“We want to encourage him,” Lopez said. “We’re trying to demonstrate to members of Congress that they don’t have anything to fear, that there’s a lot of support out here. We want to ask, ‘What else can we do for you? How can local leaders and politicians and business leaders help?’ We want them to know they’re not alone.”
Coffman’s 6th District was redrawn in 2011. It went from a suburban, solidly Republican stronghold to a semi-urban swing district evenly divided among Republican, Democratic and unaffiliated voters. The new heart of the district is working-class Aurora, the third-largest city in the state with a population of 325,000 — greater by far than the four other largest cities in the district taken together. Aurora is also an immigrant city. According to U.S. Census data from 2010, more than 30 percent of residents are Latino and 5 percent are Asian, with smaller, concentrated pockets of Arabs, Africans and Eastern Europeans. The foreign-born population of the city is 20 percent, and 30 percent of households speak a language other than English.
“Constituents got to lift up their stories here today and share their concerns,” Lopez said after the meeting with the Coffman staffers. “The people in the office responded by saying they would help facilitate dialog between constituents and legislative staffers in Washington — I think that’s important.”
Members of the tour and of the local groups that came out in support said they’ll be watching for signs in the coming weeks that the members of Congress they have targeted are serious about reform. Lopez said there’s “been a lot of mumbling” about primary candidate-filing deadlines. The next steps on immigration, he said, hinge on the kind of challenges Republican officeholders face from the far-right, staunchly anti-immigration wing of the party.
“We’ll see whether they’re preparing the ground for congressional committees to consider the issue,” he said. “No more statements and affirmations. We want legislation. We won’t stop until we see legislation.”
All signs in Aurora suggest it will be a long road.
Coffman’s voting record over the last two years shows the opposite of movement toward reform. Indeed, on Wednesday in Washington, while Lopez was meeting with his staff in Aurora, Coffman added to that record when he joined 228 Republican members of the House in voting for the so-called Enforce Act. The bill was designed as a rebuke to President Obama for in 2012 circumventing the paralyzed Congress when he issued the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals executive order, halting deportations of so-called Dreamers, or undocumented young people raised in the United States.
[ Photo of Rudy Lopez in Aurora, Colorado, via Fasting for Families flickr account. ]