NEW YORK In the basement of Judson Memorial Church, across from Washington Square Park, Danilo Gonzalez** was lying on a twin-sized inflatable bed set up near the trash bins. Several empty bottles of Gatorade and a Spanish-language entertainment magazine were littered on the floor.
Since Wednesday night, Gonzalez has been fasting for legislative immigration reform. While his body was already weakened by starvation, his eyes tired and hair disheveled, he was still determined.
More than 40 other people, including teenagers and young students, joined Gonzalez in a 72-hour fast, an act of protest by immigrants here and in other parts of the country to call for an immigration overhaul. Along with their advocates, community leaders and elected officials, the immigrants ended their fast Saturday afternoon.
I have many important reasons why I am doing this, Gonzalez, 58, who only speaks Spanish, said through an English translator. On top of it all, Im already tired of sitting and waiting for nothing. Something needs to be done.
Through his act of civil disobedience, Gonzalez hopes to get Obamas attention and put pressure on the Senate to pass comprehensive immigration reform this year. He wanted his real name used for publication, he said, because its time to be courageous, come out in the shadows and tell his grim experiences as an undocumented immigrant.
Before Obama got elected, he said he was going to help people like us. After his first year as president, nothing has changed, said Gonzalez. Unfortunately, he has forgotten what he promised, just like he has forgotten his promise to the mothers of U.S. soldiers that he was going to pull the U.S. troops out of Iraq.
Gonzalez, who is of Guatemalan descent, crossed into the United States in 2005. With the help of an organized crime group involved in human smuggling, he and 53 others took a bus to the Mexican border. He paid the traffickers $7,500, although he says some paid even more.
When we reached the Mexican border, we were asked to get off and transferred to a different bus. All of us were together, recalled Gonzalez, covering half of his body with a plaid flannel blanket. The traffickers had good connections to U.S. authorities; they paid some Border Patrol officers. After many hours of traveling, we were finally transported to Arizona.
Gonzalez said he had first tried to enter the country legally. Months before he crossed the border, he said, he went to the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala and applied for a visa. The embassy, however, told him that he was not qualified for a temporary workers visa, which is mostly given to skilled and highly educated professionals.
I had no other option but to seek the help of the Guatemalan mafia that makes money by taking immigrants across the Mexican border, Gonzalez said. I left my wife and six children behind, hoping that I could send money and help them out.
Gonzalez now lives in Queens with two Brazilian immigrants and works as a day laborer. But in the current economic recession, he has had trouble finding work. He survives on the little money he been able to save through these years.
People just dont know what we have gone through. They only think we are bad people because we dont have the papers to work here, José Quizhpilema, a 37-year-old Ecuadorian with a crew cut, said in Spanish. Sitting on his bed, adjacent to Gonzalez, he had also been fasting since Wednesday night.
Five years ago, Quizhpilema paid a coyote $11,000 to help him cross into the United States. It took him and other immigrants, along with their smugglers, seven days to travel by boat from Ecuador to Mexico.
While in the middle of the Mexican desert, they were captured by guerillas, or bandits who rob border crossers, and their smugglers decided to bring the group back to Mexico. Days later, they tried again, walking night and day through the desert, with little food or water. After a month-and-a-half journey, they finally succeeded in crossing the Arizona border.
Im fasting because, just like me, millions of immigrants in the United States are suffering. Were human, Quizhpilema said, as he sat on the bed and leaned against the wall. I left my wife and four young children in Ecuador because I thought I would be able to work here and give them a brighter future someday.
If Congress doesnt pass immigration reform soon, however, he plans to return to Ecuador. Living alone in a foreign land that does not like him, he said, is far worse than living in complete poverty.
My kids are small. They need me. Its just getting more and more difficult here. Theres nothing more important to me than my family, he said.
Starving For a Dream
An eleventh grader at Pan-American International High School, in Queens, had to take his SAT on Saturday morning.
But instead of preparing for the test, Oscar Chico was busy on Friday afternoon making placards and banners with slogans that said, I am Starving for a Dream, inside the Judson Churchs congregation hall.
I fasted for 50 hours. I started my fast on Tuesday night, but I was asked to end it today because I am going to take the test tomorrow, he said while cutting a piece of cloth and handing it to his friend, Sandra Perez, 24, sitting on the floor next to him.
I have never done anything like this before, Chico said.
He, along with other young students, joined the fast to call for the passage of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, or the DREAM Act, a bill that would provide undocumented immigrant students who came to the country as minors the chance to earn conditional permanent residency.
Someday, my dream is to go to Columbia University or Parsons. I love the arts. I would like to be an artist, a poet. Or, I want to take up Latin American studies, said Chico, a Mexican immigrant. But for now, Im fighting for the DREAM Act so I can go to college without any problems.
When he was 15, he crossed into the United States with his mother and younger brother to be reunited with their father, who had been living for years and working for a pizza restaurant in New York. They paid a coyote $3,000 each to guide them through the desert.
The five-day trek that was promised by the smugglers, he said, turned out to be 12 long days of walking, running and sleeping in the cold. They brought only enough food and water for five days.
It was the most difficult experience for me. My family and 14 others had to cross the desert and rivers. I had to carry a gallon of water the whole time, Chico recalled. He touched his earrings and looked blankly at the floor.
On the ninth day, we had no more water to drink, no more food to eat. But we had to continue walking and walking. Then on the eleventh day, we arrived at a coyotes house at the U.S. border, in Arizona, he said.
His family, Chico added, stayed at the house for a few days. One day, three vans came and they were divided into groups. Each van carried four or five passengers.
He was lucky, he said, that he and his family were put together in one van. They drove to New York, which took them six days. Chico recounted that they only stayed in a hotel once. The rest of the time, they were on the road.
I hope Obama will fight for equality, to fight for our rights as humans, to fight for our dreams. I will not give up. I will continue fighting for the DREAM Act up to the very end, he said. I promised to myself that, no matter what happens, I will definitely go to school and finish college.
Back in the basement, Gonzalez was getting ready to give a short speech. In a few minutes, the protesters, led by immigrant advocacy group Make the Road New York, would walk to Washington Square Park and hold a rally near the fountain. He was planning to tell the public about his struggles.
When he can find work, Gonzalez said that he sends his family in Guatemala up to $800 a week. In lean times, he sends $100.
Because he is unemployed, he said that he had not sent anything to his family for two weeks.
I know I will go back to Guatemala. My family is waiting for me, he said. But I would like to see the fruits of my struggle fighting for immigration reform. I have been humiliated, abused and exploited many times, and I dont want other immigrants who intend to stay to experience that again and again.
** Make the Road New York members.