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Updated Nov 24, 2013 - 3:05 pm

This hunger is no game: Phoenix man fasting to force immigration reform

Cristian Avila, 23, started fasting Nov. 12 in Phoenix, then brought his fast to Washington where he has joined four others who said they will take only water until Congress act on stalled immigration reform bills. (Photo by Pei Li/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON -- Visitors to a tent on the National Mall occasionally have to lean in close so they can understand what Phoenix resident Cristian Avila is saying.

It could be because the slight 23-year-old is just soft-spoken. Or it could be because going more than 10 days without food is beginning to take its toll.

Avila is one of five protesters who stopped eating Nov. 12 in an effort to force congressional action on stalled immigration reform legislation. They have vowed to continue their fast until the House acts.

"I'm going to be here until my body gives out or (House Speaker John) Boehner decides to knock some moral sense into his mind and give us a vote," said Avila.

The Phoenix resident looks younger than his 23 years. He speaks softly during an interview in the National Mall tent where he has been living this week, and is wrapped in a baggy brown sweater that makes his head look too small for his slim body. His eyes are a little puffy and his cheeks sallow, but his short straight hair is neatly kept.

Avila said he has had nothing but water since he started his fast in Phoenix. He arrived in Washington Saturday, where he joined four other "core" protesters who are fasting continuously and are joined by others who fast for a few days in solidarity.

The core five are keeping busy. They have scheduled activities every day and are visited by lawmakers, advocates and officials, said Casey Schoeneberger, a spokeswoman for Faith in Public Life, which is helping to organize the fast. Vice President Joe Biden stopped by Friday.

"They are working in one way or the other," Schoeneberger said, noting that they have had regular meetings and night vigils in the past several days.

The fasting protesters are watched around the clock by a nurse.

"He has a strong heart," Schoeneberger said of Avila.

But Avila said he already feels like he is wearing down.

While other immigration demonstrators who have come to Washington in recent months have engaged in chanting, singing, foot-stomping rallies, Avila and his fellow protesters are more quiet and at peace.

After more than a week of hunger, people tend to lean in close to hear the soft-spoken Avila clearly when he speaks. He is sometimes hard to understand - swallowing syllables instead of food - but he remains clear on his goal of bringing pressure on House leaders to act.

The Senate this summer passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill that calls for tougher border security, a revamped visa system and- most importantly for advocates like Avila - a multiyear path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million people who are in this country illegally.

But the bill has not moved in the House, where Boehner has said repeatedly that he will pursue a step-by-step approach to immigration reform with smaller bills, rather than take up the massive 1,200-page Senate bill.

Boehner's office did not return calls this week seeking comment on the fast.

For Avila, the issue is personal: All five members of his family are undocumented. Though he and his brother and sister are living here under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, Avila said his parents are still at risk of deportation.

"Different people are getting deported, getting arrested and getting separated from families" in Arizona, which Avila called "ground zero" for immigration. "I feel like I have the moral responsibility to come, bring this … to D.C., to John Boehner."

Those fasting "feel the physical hunger, but we have a deeper hunger than that," Avila said. "We have a hunger for justice, we have a hunger for liberty, we have a hunger to finally dream the American Dream."

But one nutritionist said Avila's real physical hunger could have real physical implications if it goes on too long.

"The longer he goes without food, the more his body is going to break down its own tissue," said Melinda Johnson, a nutrition professor in Arizona State University's School of Nutrition and Health Promotion. While it's impossible to generalize, Johnson said a long-term fast could put pressure on the heart or, in extreme cases, cause heart failure.

Avila was a 16-year-old high school sophomore when he started volunteering for Mi Familia Vota, a Phoenix-based nonprofit aimed at encouraging Latino voters. He is now a staffer there, working to register voters even though he cannot vote himself.

After years of knocking on doors and encouraging people to vote, Avila said he feels all the hard work "finally paid off … having immigration reform so close."

Democratic lawmakers who visited the tents Wednesday, including Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, said they were encouraged by the spirit of those fasting, and convinced immigration reform is not dead.

"Boehner can say what he wants right now," said Grijalva, but at some point he will have to to face reality, and the pressure from advocates of left and right is going to continue, he said.

Avila said the protesters delivered a letter to Boehner's office Tuesday, calling for action. He vows to continue fasting until Boehner schedules a vote on reform.

"We are hoping he calls us back," Avila said. "But if he doesn't, we'll be back to his office to keep the pressure on."

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