Religious leaders hold Lenten fast in support of 'Dreamers'
Feb. 13--Leaders from the Archdiocese of Chicago will fast in solidarity with a Pilsen-based priest who began a hunger strike for immigration reform and local "Dreamers" in mid-January.
The Rev. Gary Graf, a pastor at St. Procopius Parish, has lost about 22 pounds since beginning a hunger strike on Jan. 15. He plans to continue striking until at least March 5, the deadline set by President Donald Trump to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an Obama-era program that shields young immigrants who came to the country illegally as children.
Graf said he will survive off water and protein powder until then, or until lawmakers reach a deal to replace DACA -- whichever comes sooner.
Members of Priests for Justice for Immigrants and the Sisters and Brothers of Immigrants held a news conference at Holy Name Cathedral in the Near North neighborhood on Monday to support Graf's fast. Rabbi Paul F. Cohen of Temple Jeremiah in Northfield also pledged his support of so-called Dreamers during Passover.
Dozens of people signed up to participate in fasting for one or more days during Lent.
"Many dreams have already been shattered by the current administration," said the Rev. Larry Dowling of St. Agatha Catholic Church.
"Today we come together with our immigrant brothers and sisters to recommit ourselves to this journey as Congress begins today to take on the task of debating a solution to the current status of young people enrolled in DACA," he said.
The Senate on Monday began a rare, open-ended debate on immigration and the fate of young immigrants shielded by DACA.
Graf, formerly pastor at Most Blessed Trinity Parish in Waukegan and North Chicago, has continued to take Communion during the fast and said it's "strange" that he feels so good.
"I think the spiritual journey helps, and feeling the support of others. The focus is obviously not on me or us -- it's on Dreamers," Graf said. "Hopefully, we can influence those that are going to make decisions about their future."
Graf said he's taking the protest "one day at a time" and that other priests have offered to step in and continue to strike in his place, should health complications arise.
"My commitment was to continue to do this until the law passes in favor of our Dreamers and I think we're very, very close," he said.
Trump has previously expressed support for Dreamers -- a nickname that came from the DREAM Act, first proposed in 2001 to create a path to permanent residency for the young people. Still, thousands of Dreamers have lost their protections since Trump moved to end the program in September.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions called DACA an "unconstitutional exercise of authority" and said its beneficiaries are denying jobs "to hundreds of thousands of Americans by allowing those same illegal aliens to take those jobs."
If the program is phased out as planned, about 1,000 people will lose their protections per day. Some have applied to renew their status since a federal judge temporarily reopened the program in January, though that process could take months or be blocked down the road.
Many immigration advocates are calling on Congress to pass the 2017 Dream Act. The bill would grant conditional permanent residency to an estimated 1.8 million immigrants who arrived in the U.S. before age 18 and can meet requirements similar to those under DACA. Students, high school or GED course graduates and veterans are eligible for the program. Immigrants who have committed a serious crime, have more than two misdemeanor convictions or are deemed a threat to national security are disqualified.
The White House has proposed a path to citizenship for 1.8 million people in exchange for $25 billion toward Trump's proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall, plus significant curbs to legal immigration.